Courtesy Reuters An Egyptian Army helicopter flies over Cairo.

Egypt's Army of God

The Largest Arab Military Isn't As Secular As It Seems

Weeks before March 27, the day Abdul Fattah al-Sisi resigned his position as Egypt’s defense minister in order to mount what would prove to be a successful campaign for the presidency, he participated in Friday prayers at the Air Defense Force’s mosque in the Cairo district of Nasr City. Sisi was accompanied by Sedky Sobhy, the army’s chief of staff, and other leaders from the country’s military, political, and religious establishments. Ali Gomaa, the former grand mufti of Egypt, delivered the sermon. “Egypt is a country that God Almighty mentioned in the Koran unlike any other,” Gomaa said, addressing the seated crowd. “We are an army that the Messenger of God [the Prophet Muhammad] has blessed, and made its soldiers the best on the planet, and gave it his blessing,” he went on to say.

Gomaa’s comments underscore a simple truth that is often misunderstood by outside observers: the Egyptian military, in its present form, is not a secular force. Islam is woven through the military, just as it is through the broader Egyptian society. In the armed force’s own propaganda, it casts itself as the heir to the forces of Saladin, the twelfth-century Muslim leader who fended off the Crusaders and conquered Jerusalem, and whose empire was seated in Cairo. On the battlefield, the military regularly makes use of religious references: Egypt’s largest training exercise is dubbed “Badr,” a reference to the seventh-century battle in Mecca between Muhammad and his followers and the Quraysh tribe. And in speeches, the generals invoke God, the Koran, and the Prophet to reinforce a sense of spiritual legitimacy. 

Although Sisi did not initiate the military’s religious awakening, he has undoubtedly encouraged it. Soon after Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated leader who became Egypt’s president in 2012, made Sisi defense minister, Egyptian media was rife with reports that Morsi had chosen him because of his religious devotion. (Notably, Sisi’s wife dons a headscarf—inviting comparisons between him

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