The shadow of Sadat
By Sergei Davydov, special to Prague Watchdog
A deeply religious President is teaching his people to live in accordance with the precepts of Islam. The universities are becoming examples of Islamic morality, while female students wearing headscarves and hijabs symbolize the willingness of the young to follow the Prophet's teachings with regard to appropriate conduct for women. The press, radio and television never cease to extol the praises of the devout leader for his selfless devotion to the cause of the Islamification of public life. One has the impression that the President spends most of his time at a mosque or in thinking about how to please the Almighty by yet one more pious undertaking. New mosques are built, and the network of Islamic education is expanding. People who only yesterday were cursing the regime and threatening to massacre its leaders have returned to their homeland from exile under the President’s personal guarantee, and are provided with plenty of economic opportunities.
In the mid-1970s, that was how the Egypt of Anwar Sadat appeared to observers. In recent years there has been much talk on the part of Russian analysts and politicians about the “Islamification” being carried out by the Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. They see it as aimed at turning a Sufi version of Islam into the ideological basis for the regime. The final outcome of Sadat’s experiment along these lines is well-known. Could Kadyrov’s flirting with Islam lead to a similar result?
Shortly after coming to power, Sadat’s main task was the struggle with the legacy of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Not without reason, Sadat saw the principal threat to his government as coming from the “left” and was concerned to find an effective counterweight that would neutralize it. Because the Sunni leadership of Al-Azhar had largely been discredited by its ideological complaisance, the regime saw its natural allies in the Islamists, who had been repressed under Nasser. The first steps toward reconciliation with them were already being taken in 1970, the first year of Sadat’s government. In 1971 the Egyptian constitution was changed to make provision for the declaration of Sharia as the country’s main source of legislation. In that same year the leader of the “moderate” wing of the Muslim Brothers, Umar al-Tilmisani, was released from prison. Meanwhile, those leaders of the Muslim Brothers who had succeeded in emigrating to the countries of the Arabian Peninsula during Nasser’s presidency were given an opportunity to return, and received a warm welcome when they did so. Islamic banks were opened, attracting investments by former exiles who were given the freedom to engage in economic activity.
The changes were most noticeable in the universities. In the classrooms students from working-class families whose fathers and grandfathers could not have dreamt of a university degree sat side by side with representatives of the privileged sections of society. The result of this was a marked deterioration in the students’ living and working conditions. The Islamic Jamaats took on these challenges. Founded in the early 1970s, they were under the ideological sway of the Muslim Brothers.
Criticizing the forms of education that had been borrowed from the West and the Soviet Union, the Islamists of the Jamaats proposed to replace them with “Islamic” alternatives. The Islamic activists made a real contribution to solving the everyday problems faced by students. By buying a large number of mini-buses as part of the privatization program, the Islamists were able to organize almost free public transport to take female students to and from the university. Naturally, the young Egyptians who used the service were asked to dress in accordance with Islamic rules. Hijabs could also be bought from the Islamists, practically free of charge. For many female students who did not have enough money to buy fashionable clothing, this standardization seemed like a positive step.
It is hard not to draw an analogy between the Islamification of the colleges and universities in Sadat’s Egypt and the attempts by the Chechen government headed by Ramzan Kadyrov to give an “Islamic look” to the republic’s universities. One recalls the words of Mokhdan Kherimov, vice-principal of the Chechen State University, who six months ago said in an interview for the BBC’s Russian Service that “Our young women have been covered up since the very birth of the Chechen nation. We demand that they wear headscarves. We demand that the Chechen State University should have a Chechen face.”
One cannot escape the impression that Kadyrov’s appeal to Islam is merely a pretext for the creation of an ideological model that allows him to establish firm control over society. What is really involved is not an “Islamification process” at all, but an attempt to turn Kadyrov’s ideas about the adats [Chechen customs and rituals] into an ideological base for his authoritarian regime.
For Kadyrov, Sufi Islam and the adats are a conservative and patriarchal force that is able to play a role in the consolidation of the regime, and it is hard not to notice that in this approach to the matter Sadat and Chechnya’s current ruler have much in common. For Sadat, the Islamic Jamaats in the universities were important as a force with which he sought to counter the ideas of the left on the one hand, and those of the radical Muslim factions on the other. The “Islamification” that is being carried out by Kadyrov also aims to counter the jihadist ideology preached by the Caucasus Emirate led by Dokka Umarov. In many respects that ideology employs the same arguments that were used by the Egyptian Islamists of the 1970s.
It is, however, possible that by strengthening the element of Islamic discourse in their official propaganda, the Chechen authorities may transform Islamic rhetoric into the only available channel for public protest, as was the case in Egypt during the latter part of Sadat’s presidency.
As we now know, it was Sadat’s reliance on “tamed” Islamists that led to his tragic finale. As a result of their dominance in the universities and the freedom of speech they were permitted, in Egypt Islamic discourse became the dominant intellectual space, and only those opposition groups which based their appeal on this or that aspect of Muslim doctrine could count on being popular. When in January 1977 the regime give way to pressure from the IMF to reduce subsidies on basic food consumption, this caused widespread popular unrest. The Jamaats refused to cooperate with the authorities, and all the pious pathos that had hitherto guaranteed the regime’s stability suddenly turned against it.
A shadow tends to replicate the trajectory of the object that casts it. If in addition it does not see itself as a shadow, this dependence can be fatal. The characteristics of Kadyrov’s thought processes that are frequently revealed in his public statements suggest that he has little knowledge of the recent history of the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa. History, and the history of the Middle East in particular, teaches us that ignorance and the inability to draw the right conclusions at the right time can carry a very heavy price.
(Translation by DM)