The future of Egyptian democracy:

The politics of divine intervention

posted by Amira Mittermaier

What role do divine interventions play in Egypt’s current political climate? Is Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a Sufi? Is the Muslim Brotherhood anti-Sufi? To understand the interplay of religion and politics in Egypt today, it is not enough to pay attention to political parties, constitutions, and political slogans. We need to also look at how the invisible and the divine are invoked in the public sphere. The belief in divine interventions, divinely inspired dreams and visions, and direct contact with the prophet Muhammad and his saintly descendants is often associated with Sufism. In recent months, however, dreams and visions have also figured in the supposedly moderate, liberal, secular Sisi camp and in the supposedly Islamist Muslim Brotherhood camp.

References to divine interventions in political contexts are, of course, nothing new. We might think here of George W. Bush’s claim to have been on a mission from God when he launched the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Or we might think of the famous Marian apparition in the Cairo neighborhood of Zeitoun in 1968, following Egypt’s military defeat in the Six Day War of 1967, or reported visions of angels over the heads of Egyptian soldiers crossing the Suez Canal in October 1973. More recently, dreams and visions have been used as legitimizing tools by supporters of both Sisi and Mohamed Morsi. Granted, Sisi and Morsi occupy very different power positions today—one is president, the other in prison—but this mirroring is significant. It reminds us that we need to expand our understanding of “religion” when thinking about the future of religious politics in Egypt. By drawing attention to what is often dismissed as the religion of the uneducated masses, I hope to show that the problem of legitimacy exceeds questions of electoral or shari‘a-derived legitimacy.

To be clear, my goal in comparing Sisi’s dreams and Muslim Brotherhood visions is not to make an argument about irrationality or superstition. Along with scholars such as William Connolly, I find it important to pay attention to the visceral underpinnings of supposedly rational politics, in Egypt and other places. As I have argued elsewhere, dream and vision stories offer insight into the ways in which the imaginary folds into politics, in religious and supposedly secular contexts alike. To me, the uneven distribution of ridicule in response to such stories is just as telling about the visceral underpinnings of politics as are the dream-stories themselves.

Muslim Brotherhood Visions

Fox News reports emphasized the “fiery speeches laden with religious rhetoric” that were given from the stage at the Muslim Brotherhood sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya in July and August 2013. In one of these speeches, preacher Ahmed Abdel Hadi spoke of a vision in which the prophet Muhammad allows Morsi to lead prayers. Another vision reported by the same preacher refers to “some good (salihin) men” in Medina who saw the angel Jibril come to the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque to help the protesters pray to maintain their position. It seems from the YouTube video that these stories were received with enthusiasm, ululations, and exclamations of Allahu Akbar. Other dreams told from the stages at Rabaa include one in which Morsi promises God’s protection, and another, seen by a girl and reported by the Salafi preacher Sawfat Hegazy, in which Sisi sits in a swimming pool filled with blood.

Muslim Brotherhood references to dreams and visions are not a new phenomenon. While Hassan al-Banna, the movement’s founder, denounced the reliability of dreams, divine inspiration, and premonitions, the Rabaa stories echo older accounts about Muslim Brotherhood members being protected by angels. Zaynab al-Ghazali, prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the founder of the Muslim Women’s Association, claimed, for instance, that, while imprisoned in the 1960s, God’s angels appeared in her cell to feed, clothe, and protect her. She also reported seeing a dream of the prophet Muhammad while in prison. In March 2013, Abdelhadi told of a dream in which eight green pigeons stand over Morsi’s right shoulder. He interpreted this dream to mean that Morsi would complete two presidential terms. At Rabaa and in these earlier contexts, dream-tellings assure the listener of God’s blessing and protection. Along the same lines, one protester in Asyut on 26 July 2013 told Morsi supporters about a dream in which Morsi kills a dangerous snake. In his view the dream confirmed that “We don’t have the support of the army, police, media, or judiciary but we have the support of God.”

The Egyptian mainstream media ridiculed the vision-reports from the Rabaa sit-in, stigmatizing Muslim Brotherhood members as ignorant and out of touch with reality, and accusing the organization’s leaders of manipulating the masses. A representative for the Ministry of Religious Affairs stated that these dream-tellings were an attempt to use religion to play politics. Political commentator Amr Adeeb took the vision-reports as a sign that common manners of thinking among Egyptians are in urgent need of reform. He singles out al-Azhar as an institution that requires extensive restructuring. The person who claimed to have spotted Jibril, he says, has no sense of right from wrong. After all, even Muhammad’s closest companions, such as Umar and Abu Bakr, never purported to have seen such visions. Adeeb laments both the lack of learnedness on part of contemporary preachers and the credulity of the people who believe such stories. For him, the vision-reports are a deliberate ploy by the Muslim Brotherhood to manipulate religion to serve political ends.

Satirist Bassem Youssef, too, in his Twitter feed, ridiculed the vision-reports from Rabaa the day after they went viral. He made jokes about Hassan al-Banna appearing at Rabaa and spitting on the protesters, and the Virgin Mary and the Mahdi appearing to revive tourism in Egypt. Here, too, the critique seems directed at the Muslim Brotherhood’s opportunistic tactics of using stories of the divine to bolster their political support base. The critique is also directed at the gullibility of the Morsi supporters. Ironically, however, dreams and visions have also been invoked in support of the Egyptian military, which is often celebrated as the last bastion of Egypt’s secular future.

Sisi’s Dreams

In the weeks leading up to the presidential elections, Sisi presented himself as a defender of “moderate Islam,” ready to wage a war on Islamist terror. Sisi supporters applauded the promise of a semi-secular (if authoritarian) alternative to the establishment of an Islamic state in Egypt. Critics complicated this triumphalist story of a gradual move towards secularism. They pointed out that, even though the Muslim Brotherhood is now outlawed and many of its members have been arrested or have been issued the death penalty, Islam continues to pervade politics. Religion remains woven into the constitution; the Salafi al-Nour party is active in the political scene; and, far from separating state and religion, the state has been tightening its control over religious institutions.

Other commentators emphasized Sisi’s religious rhetoric and the frequent references to Qur’anic verses and hadiths in his speeches, or they pointed to his supposed Sufi leanings. Political scientist Khalil Anani notes that Sisi, who grew up in Gamaliya, close to the al-Hussein Mosque, blends Salafism with a “popular, traditional” form of religiosity, one that “absorbs a Sufi trend: visions, dreams, and divine signs.” Columnist Nasser Farghali similarly highlights Sisi’s upbringing in “an ancient Cairo quarter where Sufism and love for the prophet’s descendants have been thriving for centuries” to explain why “Sisi’s vision of Islam is closer to Sufism than to any other form or interpretation of religion.”

In line with these supposed Sufi leanings, Ali Gum‘a, former Grand Mufti of Egypt, referred in early October 2013 to an increase in visions of the prophet Muhammad and his saintly descendants supporting Sisi. Even more significant, in March 2014 an interview with Sisi went viral in which he tells a number of prophetic dreams. The interview was conducted in December 2012 by Yassir Rizq, former editor-in-chief of al-Masry al-Yawm. In it Sisi tells Rizq that he frequently sees dreams which then come true but that he stopped talking about such dreams in 2006. Nevertheless, he then shares four of his dreams. Although he asks Rizq not to make these dreams public, the interview, leaked by the Rassd network, was broadcast on 11 December 2013 by Ahrar 25, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated satellite channel based in Turkey. It went viral three months later, at a time of growing speculation about whether Sisi was going to run for president or not.

In one of the four dreams, Sisi sees himself holding a sword on which is written in red la illaha illa Allah (there is no god but Allah). He supposedly had this dream 35 years ago. In another dream he sees himself wearing an Omega watch with a big green star on it. People in the dream ask him: “You, why do you have this watch?” He replies: “It is because of my name – it is Omega and I’m Abdel Fattah, so there is something universal between us.” (Sisi might here be referring to the biblical verse “I am the alpha and the omega,” i.e., I am the beginning and the end). Another dream involves an encounter with former president Anwar Sadat, who tells Sisi he knew he would be president. Sisi responds: “I know that I will be president too.” In another dream, a voice tells Sisi: “We will grant you what no one has had before.”

While supposedly not intended for publication, these dream-accounts resonate with a broader rhetoric of chosen-ness and divine guidance that pervades Sisi’s speeches. This rhetoric reinforces the idea that, when Sisi received permission from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to run for president in March 2014 “to answer the call of the people,” he was also answering a divine calling. As Atef Said notes in his contribution to this series, an Azharite scholar has even compared Sisi and Mohammad Ibrahim, Minister of Interior Affairs, to the prophets Moses and Harun, framing Sisi explicitly as a “messenger from God.” Al-Azhar later made the scholar apologize for the comparison but, as an Egyptian blogger points out, the day following his inauguration Sisi was once again likened to Moses on the cover of the newspaper Al-Watan.

While claiming to be the savior of moderate Islam, Sisi presents himself as deeply pious or even chosen. Commentators have pointed out that, “with references to God and morality, Sisi may turn out to be the most outwardly pious of any of the military men to have governed Egypt since the republic was founded in 1953.” The Salafi leader Yasser al-Burhami has noted that Sisi is more religious (mutadayyin) than Hamdeen Sabahi, the only competing presidential candidate in the 2014 elections. Jehan Sadat, widow of President Sadat, stated, “Sisi is religious and knows God.” And even the wife of the imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood member Kayrat al-Shater reports that her husband used to laud Sisi’s religiousness. Sisi’s performed piety sits uneasily with his proclaimed longing for a time when no one asked, “What is your religion?

Like the dream-stories from the Rabaa sit-in, Sisi’s dreams drew criticism and stirred sarcastic commentary. Mohammad al-Gawadi, a professor of cardiology and author of multiple books on political history, deconstructed Sisi’s dreams in a television show. He delves into the technicalities of the spelling of the word “omega” in Arabic and English to argue that the association that Sisi establishes between Omega and the name Abdel Fattah is ambiguous and unfounded. In this case, refuting the dream’s interpretation puts the dream itself into question. More broadly, al-Gawadi emphasizes the difference between made-up and actual dreams, and he draws attention to the role of desire in producing dreams. To him, Sisi’s dreams are made-up nonsense used to enhance Sisi’s personal image and credibility amongst the masses. Disbelief in such dreams is here again a mark of secularism and class distinction. According to some, Sisi wants to convince the masses that he is predestined by God to be president and that the evolution of his political career is essentially just the acting out of God’s will. The scholar’s intervention is to redirect attention from God’s will to Sisi’s personal ambitions.

However, criticism of Sisi’s dreams came not only from the secular camp. The Salafi Shaykh Mustafa Salama also dedicated one of his sermons to deconstructing Sisi’s dreams. He does not take issue with the visions themselves, but rather with how and who interpreted them. He argues that it is not within Sisi’s jurisdiction to interpret his own dreams, and that his interpretations were incorrect and self-serving. Here the dream is real but the interpretation is dangerously wrong. Salama believes that the sword dream, far from foreshadowing victory, indicates that Sisi will be responsible for killing thousands of Muslims. Similarly, a spokesman of the Salafist Front interpreted the sword dream to mean that Sisi took authority in illegitimate ways and that the red color refers to the blood of Muslims. Muslim Brotherhood supporters, too, have commented on the same dream, saying that, by the will of God, Sisi will be executed by the very sword he dreamt of. The video compilation from which I draw this comment ends with a number of interviewees offering advice to Sisi: “Go to sleep, Sisi, and cover yourself well!” Here Muslim Brotherhood supporters echo the advice parents often administer to their young, naive children who report having had strange or wildly outlandish, unbelievable dreams.

Revolutionary and Conservative Dreams

In The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, Slavoj Žižek uses the “Arab Spring” as a key example for emancipatory dreams. Indeed, metaphorical dream-talk figured widely in Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Think of the widespread claim that the uprising was a dream come true, or graffiti on Cairo’s walls in 2011, warning: “If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.” This slogan, used also in many other places of protest, seems to express a revolutionary truth: A revolution depends on the very power to dream one’s way collectively beyond the status quo. Yet Žižek also points to destructive dreams. His key example here is Anders Behring Breivik, who attacked a Norwegian youth camp in 2011, driven by a vision (or dream) of racial purity. In Egypt, too, the revolutionary dream co-exists with its conservative counterpart. Dreams of change co-exist with ones used to establish legitimacy, exclude, or reinscribe a status quo.

Whereas protesters reported their own dreams of the prophet Muhammad during sit-ins at Tahrir Square, both Sisi’s dreams and the Rabaa visions are far removed from the dreams of revolution. They are legitimizing devices, employed in a struggle for power. One of my goals in comparing these two sets of dreams was to trouble the line between “moderate” and “Islamist” voices. Both sides use a language of divine interventions, one commonly associated with Sufism. Importantly, Sufism should here not be understood as confined to its institutionalized forms such as the Higher Council of Sufi Affairs. Claims to divine inspiration can take various forms and are powerful precisely because they are not tied to formal institutions. Nevertheless, divine inspiration can buttress hierarchies while also destabilizing them. These less institutionalized, more visceral and imaginary dimensions of Islam are often overlooked in debates about the future of religious politics in Egypt, but they can be strong mobilizing forces.

Some, of course, would dismiss all stories of divine intervention, regardless of who is doing the telling. Such an across-the-board dismissal can function as a sign of class distinction, secularism, and rationalism. Yet, for many Sisi supporters who ridiculed the gullibility of Muslim Brotherhood members, Sisi’s own purported prophetic dreams and his religious rhetoric complicate the embrace of such a disenchanted rationalism. Conversely, Muslim Brotherhood supporters might have been enthusiastic at the thought of angel Jibril supporting their protests, but are skeptical of Sisi’s dreams. Many are happy to support one set of dreams while dismissing the other. The mirroring of ridicule parallels the mirroring of dreams. Both show that politics are rarely a rational playing field.

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One Response to “The politics of divine intervention”

  1. avatar Noha Roushdy says:

    A most central problem that is alluded to but not explicitly addressed in this article is the absence of an adequate understanding of the meaning and role of religion for the different parties involved in the political scene in Egypt as well as for their supporters. Although the article aims to discuss the blurring of lines between “Islamists” and “moderates” around dreaming and visions, the author retains the description “secular,” for instance, when describing the Egyptian military. Describing the military or anti-Muslim Brotherhood camp as”secular” fails to capture and misrepresents not only the way the military presents itself but also how it is perceived by the people who support it. If we insist that religion is in fact what separates these different groups, then there is need for deeper understanding of the differences and similarities between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and military supporters in terms of their religiosity. My point is that retaining the secular-religious binary as category of analysis does not address the actual workings of religion in contemporary politics of Egypt.

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