During a speech on 3 July 2013, then field marshal Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi had both the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb and Pope Tawadros II at his side.
The two religious leaders spoke after Al-Sisi in the formal announcement of the ouster of Mohamed Morsi. After that day, Egypt experienced months of turmoil and violence, which included the violent dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins, clashes between security forces and anti-government activists, as well as the rise of Jihadist groups, particularly in the Sinai peninsula.
At that time and up to the present, Egypt’s religious institutions have played a key role in bestowing legitimacy on the post-30 June government, which opponents still describe as an authoritarian regime that ascended to power through a “coup”.
Islamic religious institutions: In search of an alternative
Hours after the official ouster of Morsi, a number of Islamist channels actively supporting the ousted president went off-air. The channels included Misr 25, which is Muslim Brotherhood-owned, as well as with other Salafi channels such as Al-Nas, Al-Hafez, and Amgad.
During the 30 June mass protests, these channels were vocally opposed to anti-government demonstration, and to the ultimatum announced by the armed forces to “political entities” to end the division in the country. The channels repeatedly hosted high profile Islamic preachers who used religious rhetoric to denounce the protests and support Morsi.
This put the channels under heavy fire, and they were accused of “perpetuat[ing] violence and inciting hatred”, as well as presenting a “wrong image of Islam”, placing pressure on the Egyptian state to “correct” this image of Islam, and to counter the ousted ideology of political Islam.
The Egyptian state, embodied by the army, the police, the clergy, the governmental bureaucracy, the business class, and the judiciary, aimed to remove the effects of one year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, physically and ideologically.
The Brotherhood, along with its members and affiliates were subjected to violent crackdowns, which left hundreds dead and thousands in jails. Ideologically, the state utilised its quasi-religious-governmental organisations to achieve the objective.
Dar Al-Ifta, an institution, mainly concerned with Islamic legal and theoretical research, and is considered the primary interpreter of Islamic jurisprudence, acting the country’s main advisor on religious issues and the foremost body for issuing religious edicts (fatwas).
Grand Mufti Shawqy Allamhas publically opposed the pro-Morsi protests and called upon youth not to support any anti-government demonstrations, nor attack public institutions. Allam also issued a number of fatwas to counter statements by militant groups, often calling for targeting police and army personnel.
In addition to the laws which clearly criminalised belonging to “terrorist” groups, the institution issued a declaration in September 2014, arguing that “belonging to a militant terrorist group is religiously forbidden”, as well as condemning attacks on army and police checkpoints and facilities.
Additionally the institution launched a number of online campaigns and publications, in English and Arabic, after the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), which later self identified as ‘Islamic State’. An observatory to monitor “strange” fatwas (mainly issued by militants groups in Egypt or outside) was established. Allam has also led international delegations and met foreign ambassadors, with the meetings usually discussing “the efforts to counter terrorism”.
Along the lines of Egyptian officials who harshly criticised ISIS and its practices, Dar al-Ifta declared that the terminology of “Islamic State” is offensive to Islam. They announced that ISIS should be referred to as the “Al-Qaeda separatists”.
The greatest challenge the Grand Mufti faced were the Islamist calls to protest on 28 November 2014, under the name “the Muslim Youth Uprising”, raising copies of the Holy Quran, describing the calls as “attempts to humiliate the Holy Book and involve it in political disputes”.
The ministry of endowments also followed a similar trend in both restricting the control Islamists had on both the financial and ideological fronts.
The ministry warned against the presence of religious NGOs with a political agenda, describing it as “a threat to the stability of the country”, condemning the alleged “exploitation of religion for the purposes of political and electoral interests”. The ministry asserted that Al-Azhar is the only religious institution which is constitutionally responsible for Islamic affairs in the country, including Friday sermons, religious lessons in mosques, and “advocating a moderate Islamic rhetoric”.
NGOs with religious affiliations have recently become subject to a state crackdown over allegations of being “Brotherhood organisations”. The latest NGO to be closed was the Medical Islamic Association, which was founded in the late 1970s.
Inside the mosques, the ministry safeguarded the expansion of a unified Friday sermon, under the supervision of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb, to follow a common theme. This was accompanied by other restrictions to limit the power of unofficial preachers, such as assigning a ministerial preacher to each major mosque, and proceeding to ban 12,000 imams who were not certified by Al-Azhar from delivering sermons.
Making this safer, the ministry warned imams of mosques to “not even consider entering political elections” in a statement, cautioning of the “dangers” of combining religion with politics.
Simultaneously, Al-Azhar also has been supporting the post-30 June regime, through its rhetoric and by presenting itself as the “vanguard of moderate Islam”. Al-Tayeb has met with a number of foreign delegations in and outside Cairo.
Further, the Imam has been outspoken in supporting the current policies of the government, including the ongoing Suez Canal project, and the “war on terrorism”. Al-Azhar also supported the “Long Live Egypt” fund, by donating 3m EGP.
The fund, named after Al-Sisi’s election campaign slogan, was launched last July and was granted legal status in November. It is to collect donations to support the economy and fund projects. In various speeches, Al-Sisi has called on Egyptians to donate.
After Al-Sisi’s speech on 1 January, which urged the three Islamic institutions in the country, to further “renew religious discourse”, to fight militancy and extremism, a question remained wither the rhetoric of those institution will witness a further tendency towards nationalism.
The Coptic Church
Pope Tawadros II, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the highest Coptic Christian authority in Egypt, and leader of the sizeable Coptic Christian community, has also declared his support of the post-30 June regime and its leaders.
Since then, a radical shift in the church’s rhetoric could be seen, shifting from spiritual to political, and producing a clear sense of nationalism.
In an interview with state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram, the Pope said that the most important gain after the choosing a constitution and electing a president is the inauguration of the Suez Canal project.
Earlier in 2014, he had openly supported vote in favour of the constitutional referendum, saying that “a Yes vote shall bring blessings”.
The Pope also praised the “Long Live Egypt” fund, promising that there will be donations from Churches and Chapels to support the fund, which is considered one of the different strategies that could be argued to define the economic vision of the current regime.
In addition, the Pope had adapted the state’s rhetoric in challenging terrorism, and supporting both the police and the army. This evolved after the armed forces volunteered to rebuild the churches destroyed in the post-Rabaa Al-Adaweya dispersal violence.
However, the Pope came under heavy criticism following his controversial statements on the Maspero clashes last November, where he argued that there is no need to raise the issue, especially during the current circumstances Egypt is witnessing. On 28 December 2014, he clarified that the clashes were “horrifying” and cannot be forgotten.
In another interview with a private TV channel, he said: “When the country is facing terrorism and crime, how come we talk about human rights?”
During the latest Coptic Christmas mass, Al-Sisi visited the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abasseya, acting as the first president to attend the ceremony. With the upcoming parliamentary elections approaching, and with the increased number of candidates seeking the support of the Church, the level to which the Coptic institution will shape the balance of power in the new parliament is worth investigating.