In Egypt, Religion Remains a Vital Political Tool

It was a familiar sight: the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, and the Coptic Pope, Tawadros II, side-by-side as General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the ousting of Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013. Front seats were granted to the two grey-bearded clerics who had donned their customary robes for the occasion. Since the founding of the Republic of Egypt in 1952, the Church and al-Azhar have often joined efforts with the state authorities. This time another, pious actor befriended the triad: the-Salafist Nour Party. With Egypt then standing on the verge of entering a new adventure, the formation of this curious alliance suggested that religion as a political instrument would not perish.

An Old Triad Born-Again

At the time of Morsi’s ouster, Sisi was riding the crest of a wave, with Egyptians taking to the streets to support his move. However, his campaign faced immediate challenges from thousands of disgruntled Brotherhood supporters who felt they were being marginalized. In order to counter this, Sisi unbolted a full-fledged war of words in which he demonized the Brotherhood. Key to this effort was the backing of al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, who stepped in as ambassadors of the new regime.

For Christians in Egypt, the takeover of power by Sisi was believed to be a safe passage away from the Brotherhood’s rule, which many saw as a threat to their security. Shortly after Morsi’s removal, in mid-August, the majority of Christians shored up their backing for the military as a series of attacks on at least 42 churches highlighted the need to push back the security threat.

Al-Azhar too, had welcomed the toppling of Morsi for it secured the Islamic institution its leading position in the realm of religion. This was true even though the 2012 Brotherhood-forged constitution  had expanded al-Azhar’s powers, and granted the institution a “consultative role” in matters related to Islamic jurisprudence. Al-Azhar’s distrust of the Brotherhood government, however, was likely directly influenced by rumors of the ‘Brotherhoodization’ of the religious institution.

Remarkably, however, Christian political figures remain mostly absent in the political scene. This signals that little improvements have been made in terms of political pluralism. The lack of prominent Christian politicians is largely explained by the structural limitations that continue to exist for non-Muslims. Since the revival of political Islam in the 1970s, which among other things, brought with it the institutionalization of Sharia legislation, religion has increasingly dictated the course of political affairs in Egypt. As a result, the thought has implicitly come to reign that Muslims are not to be governed by their non-Muslim counterparts.

An exceptional case is that of Hala Shukrallah, nominated in February to succeed Mohamed ElBaradei as head of the liberal Dostour Party. Still, some regard her election rather as a strategic decision and claim that it was only possible for she is married a Muslim.

The absence of prominent Christian politicians is also the result of the dominant role, the Pope plays as the chief representative of the Coptic community in political affairs. This was once again illustrated during this year’s Christmas mass in Cairo’s Abbassiya Cathedral, where on a rare instance Sisi was cheered ardently, after Pope Tawadros II thanked him in absentia.

Campaigning, Campaigning

Religion has taken on a different guise after Morsi’s fall. Whereas the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces used religious discourse to cement their power base, the new regime revamped the use of religion-infused propaganda. It distanced itself from preachy messages that Islamists previously spread, and accused their predecessors of exploiting Islam for political goals. Sisi has, however, on several occasions earned comparisons to Anwar Sadat, the self-described “Believer President,” and pious references peppered his pre-election interviews and post-election speeches.

Other officials, too, have not shunned religious language. For instance, in his last televised speech, former president Adly Mansour when addressing Copts, he referred to the Covenant of Omar, an historic document in which the 7th-century Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab supposedly laid the basis for the preservation of Christian Churches in the “Islamic state.” Among historians, the document is generally acknowledged for establishing a peace accord between Muslims and non-Muslims at the time of the Islamic conquests. Yet, in modern days, various interpretations of the historic document continue to stir controversy among some Christians, who see it as laying the basis for second-class citizenship. This distrust stems from some stipulations in the pact that produced today’s argumentative notions of “dhimmi” (usually translated as “protected person”) and “jizya” (religious tax).

In a more comprehensive move to control religious speech, the authorities also started to control mosque sermons and the licensing of imams. Laws were introduced in an attempt to unify Friday sermons, and, imams too, saw regulations tightened as higher qualifications were set to their profession. A recently implemented law bans preachers who did not graduate from al-Azhar and do not hold a permit from the Ministry of Religious Endowments. The move was deemed necessary to clamp down on religious extremism, but some fear that it might come at the cost of confessional pluralism

Still, the government’s latest action is probably most striking – and it is not aimed at Islamists. With the belief that atheism in Egypt is on the rise, authorities swiftly identified a new enemy: Egypt’s non-believers. While there are no reliable figures on the number of atheists in Egypt, one Egyptian newspaper placed that number at 3 million.

In response to this apparent increase in atheism, officials at the Ministry of Religious Endowments and the Ministry of Sports and Youth announced the start of a new campaign against atheism, called Think Again, against atheism. Talking to Al-Monitor, Nuamat Sati, a government official in charge of the campaign, elaborated on the extensive procedures saying: “The campaign will use technology, the Internet and social media networks to reach atheists and answer all the questions which pushed them to atheism. We are also going to create a website for the “Think Again” campaign, which aims at spreading awareness concerning phenomena such as addiction, takfiri thinking, extremism and atheism.”

Though exact numbers on Egypt’s atheists remain contested, it is widely believed that atheism has gained ground since 2011. Some argue that an important factor contributing to this phenomenon could be the rise of religious extremism and the politicization of religion. In this capacity, religion has come to be perceived as an extension of the paternal state and authoritarianism in general.

The topic of irreligion has mostly been governed by taboo. The conversation takes place against the backdrop of a country that has grown significantly conservative over the past fifty years. Only on rare occasions has the issue gained attention but in recent years, with the advent of social media platforms, atheist have found a valuable medium for discussing their disputed faith. The spotlight has, however, renewed tensions. In December 2012, Alber Saber, a prominent atheist, was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of blasphemy. Last October, Sherif Gaber, a student was detained on charges of insulting religion, accused of forming a Facebook group for atheists. In March of this year, Alexandria’s local Chief of the Security Directorate, Amin Ezz el-Din, announced a taskforce charged with arresting Facebook users who openly identified themselves as atheists. Announcing a new initiative today, Minister of Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar said both his ministry and the Ministry of Culture are combatting “two extremes,” lumping atheism and extremism together. 

Questions have been raised over the eventual goal of these campaigns. Some fear an increased climate of intolerance and a continued decrease of religious freedom, not only for the country’s atheists but also for Bahai’s, Shiites and Ahmadis whose faiths are not protected by the Egyptian Constitution and continue to face discrimination.

One year after the toppling of the Brotherhood, religious speech remains imperative. Acknowledging the profits of religion, Egypt’s military-backed regime swiftly steered away from secularism and continues to address its citizens via religious speech. Rather than ending an era in which religion has played a major role, the state authorities have (re)nationalized religion and persist to guide Egyptians with a little help from above.    

Johannes A. Makar specializes in Middle Eastern affairs and has a boundless passion for everything related to modern Egyptian society. You can follow him on Twitter and Tumblr

Image: Photo: People walk near banners of Egypt's army chief, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (C), with Coptic and Islamic leaders Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmed al-Tayeb (R) and Pope Tawadros II (L) of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo February 19, 2014 (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)