egypt needs schools, not more mosques. can Sisi build them ?

The man most likely to become Egypt’s next president , Abdelfattah Al-Sisi,  is long on generalities short on detail.  He has refused to publish a programme for no obvious reasons. But one particular thing he said had attracted more attention than others,  especially that of  Western media.

In his first tv interview Mr Al-Sisi said “The Islamist discourse has robbed Islam of its humanity.”   This prompted the Reuters news agency to announce that “Egypt’s Sisi will turn Islam on Islamists.”

Describing Mr Al-Sisi as a pious leader, and likening him to late president Sadat,  the agency concluded that Al-Sisi would use his own “vision of  Islam” to fight Islamism. It didn’t tell us what this vision was (neither did he for that matter).

This is  an ominous comparison for Mr Al-Sisi though, since Sadat was gunned down by Islamist terrorists, and  Mr Al-Sisi did for the first time disclose during the televised interview that there had been already two attempts on his life, but refused to give any details. This has  lead one Egyptian daily (Al-Tahrir)  to ask readers in an online poll whether they think the next president would be assassinated ! Bizarre you might think.  But it is not the only thing that can be qualified as such in Egypt today.

However, Reuters didn’t seem to be aware that there was nothing newsworthy in its spin, because  past leaders in Egypt have tried to do precisely that — and failed.

They had no personal vision, but simply enlisted the support of state-sanctioned  Islam in the fight against the Muslim Brothers and other Jihadis.  And it has backfired for obvious reasons :  when you surrender the terms of the battle to your adversary, you instantly sign your own death warrant.  Instead of categorically and uncompromisingly rejecting the Islamist frame of reference and insisting on defining politics in terms of practical,  concrete and measurable achievements, playing the identity game on the Islamists’s grounds,  the state was bound to fail, because it can never be thoroughly Islamic, according to the Islamist rule book.

And the signs are that Mr Al-Sissi will follow the same failed script : to prove that he and his rule will be more Islamic than the Islamists.

In a previous article I alluded to the enormous mosque  being constructed by the army and dedicated to the former defence minister, Tantawi. Unfortunately, Al-Sisi was given an easy ride in his first interview.  He was not for example asked whose decision it was to spend so much money (estimated to be millions of Egyptian pounds) to construct such a mosque.  Interestingly, Mr Al-Sisi , who demonstrated a sober grasp of the numbers underlying Egypt’s economic and social woes,  said the country was in need of 20,000 new schools.

The first question that comes to mind is how many schools the money spent on Tantawi’s mosque could have built ?  Not knowing the cost of that mosque, we may never be able to answer that question with exact figures.

But it is a crucial question for the future of Egypt.  Former government minister , Maged Othman,  has disclosed in a recent column a staggering fact :  “Did you now, dear reader”,  he wrote in Al-Shorouk daily ,  “ that the number of mosques and churches in  Egypt has reached 100 K, while the number of schools is only 50 K.” The real figure could be a lot higher because the official statistics  do not include an unknown number of private mosques  built without planning permission and , even more alarming, operate without the supervision of the religious authorities.

Mr Othman wrote that in one particular area in upper Egypt the number of mosques had quadrupled during the past seven years.

Nearly all the mosques are built by private donations, because pious Egyptians believe that building a mosque will guarantee them a place in paradise in the afterlife.

Why  donating money to build schools and other public works does not seem to count as piety ? Is serving the public not a religious act in the full sense of the word ?  Does not the call to prayer urge Muslims five times a day  to do good work in this life (“hayy ?ala al falah” —  falah  is derived from the verb which also means cultivating the land ) !

Mr Othman – who before serving as minister in the previous government, worked as chief of government agency that has access to all official statistics – disclosed that Egypt has also seen an exponential growth in Azhari (religious) education, making Al-Azhar university the largest in Egypt.

For those who do not know, Azhari pupils in primary and secondary schools study the standard curriculum but they also have to memorise the Koran and other canonical Islamic texts.  Has that improved the moral fibre of Egyptian society ? If it has , neither I or any one else,  have noticed. It has only produced people so ill-equipped for the labour market, which then turns into  frustration and anger … you know the rest.

Making religion the benchmark with which to assess everything is the game of Islamists – those who are fighting this ideology should refuse to play it.

Will Mr Al-Sisi try to reverse that trend , which has only served to insert religion everywhere ?

I doubt Al-Sisi can deal with this challenge,  because it  requires a degree of intellectual ammunition the Egyptian military are not known to possess, due to their educational and cultural background ( which is predominantly rural and conservative).

Everything the military (or the political order they have created since the nineteen fifties) have done for the past sixty years (sincere nationalists as they are)  have only made the Isalmists stronger.  Are they aware of that ? Can they reverse it ?  I hope they do,  but I doubt it.

(Written for IslamistGate


Magdi Abdelhadi

Writer, broadcaster, moderator, media consultant. I commute between London and Cairo. I am a former BBC journalist. All views here are only mine.

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