Egypt's new military leader has an Islamist agenda of his own

But even though he overthrew a government dominated by Islamists, there is reason to suspect that Sisi’s true goal might not be the establishment of a more inclusive, secular democracy but, rather, a military-led resurrection and reformation of the Islamist project that the Brotherhood so abysmally mishandled. Indeed, after Morsi became president, he tapped Sisi to become defense minster precisely because there was plenty of evidence that the general was sympathetic to Islamism. He is reputed to be a particularly devout Muslim who frequently inserts Koranic verses into informal conversations, and his wife wears the conservative dress favored by more orthodox Muslims. Those concerned about Sisi’s views on women’s rights were alarmed by his defense of the military’s use of “virginity tests” for female demonstrators detained during the uprising against Mubarak. Human-rights activists argued that the “tests” were amounted to sexual assaults; Sisi countered that they were intended “to protect the girls from rape.”

Morsi likely also found much to admire in the thesis that Sisi produced at the U.S. Army War College, which, despite its innocuous title (“Democracy in the Middle East”), reads like a tract produced by the Muslim Brotherhood. In his opening paragraph, Sisi emphasizes the centrality of religion to the politics of the region, arguing that “for democracy to be successful in the Middle East,” it must show “respect to the religious nature of the culture” and seek “public support from religious leaders [who] can help build strong support for the establishment of democratic systems.” Egyptians and other Arabs will view democracy positively, he wrote, only if it “sustains the religious base versus devaluing religion and creating instability.” Secularism, according to Sisi, “is unlikely to be favorably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith.” He condemns governments that “tend toward secular rule,” because they “disenfranchise large segments of the population who believe religion should not be excluded from government,” and because “they often send religious leaders to prison.”

But Sisi’s thesis goes beyond simply rejecting the idea of a secular state; it embraces a more radical view of the proper place of religion in an Islamic democracy. He writes: “Democracy cannot be understood in the Middle East without an understanding of the concept of El Kalafa,” or the caliphate, which Sisi defines as the 70-year period when Muslims were led by Muhammad and his immediate successors. Re-establishing this kind of leadership “is widely recognized as the goal for any new form of government” in the Middle East, he asserts.