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Dynamics of Religious Situation in the Post-Revolutionary Egypt



In the present article the issue of transformation of religious situation in Egypt after the 2011 revolution is being analyzed. Throughout centuries religion used to and continues to play tremendous role in the Egyptian society. However at the current transitory period conflict between secularly and religiously oriented forces has intensified. Abolishing the prohibition for religiously marked parties and movements to participate in political life of the country has questioned the future of Egypt as the conflict between secularists and religious conservatives has shifted to the political area.
Dynamics of Religious Situation in the Post-Revolutionary Egypt
Mona Khalil
Originally published in Russian language in Vestnik MGIMO University journal (by
Moscow State Institute of International Relations), № 6 (27) / 2012, p. 187-189
In nearly mononational Egypt religion is actually one of the main identity pillars
influencing all spheres of life political, social and even economic. Moreover, Egyptian
conservatives often tend to perceive religiousness as a natural substitute for citizenship.
In this context, it is crucial to study the changes that took place in Egypt’s religious
situation after the revolution, which burst out in January-February 2011 and led to
ousting president Hosny Mubarak as well as changing country’s ruling regime.
During the past decades religious situation in Egypt was characterized by
contradictions and tensions. However, despite a widely spread conception of the
permanent conflict between Moslems and Christians there exists a more severe conflict
that of religiosity and secularism, which acquired even greater acuteness after the
revolution. Despite expectations of many Western and Russian experts that religious
organizations would actively participate in revolutionary demonstrations, the leading
protesting forces were predominantly comprised of secularly oriented youth. Moreover,
during eighteen days of the revolution no religious slogan or call had been raised neither
at renowned Tahrir square, nor at squares in other Egyptian cities. The culmination of
Egyptian national unity became famous Friday prayer at Tahrir square, during which
Coptic Christians secured praying Moslems while during the next Sunday prayer
Moslems secured Christians.
Religious movements and their leaders felt outcasts from the major event of
modern Egyptian history and were forced to start acting.
“Moslem Brotherhood” (MB) has always been the most well-known and powerful
religious organization in Egypt. Having a long and ambiguous history being world’s
oldest and largest Islamist organization established in Egypt in 1928 it was claiming to
conduct a religious (Islamic) renaissance of the country. Their main strategy was to
change the existing social structure by gradually changing the worldview of individuals,
then their families and afterwards of the whole society
. In the past decades religious
parties have been legally prohibited from participating in Egypt’s political life, which
made MB carry out only social projects, predominantly in the spheres of charity,
education and medical care.
Egyptian revolution of 2011 has brought the movement unprecedented benefits:
not only they could get out from the political underground, but also acquired a chance
to join anti-governmental protesting movements as soon as the revolution’s victory
became obvious. Moreover, they had formed a political party “Al-Hurrya wa El-Adala”
(“Freedom and Justice”) that succeeded to take a significant number of seats in the new
parliament (37.5%). At the same time their ideological guidelines became much softer,
appeared a tendency to step away from radicalism as well as inclination towards
democratic values.
Remarkably, a prominent public figure of Christian origin Rafik Habib was
elected party’s vice-president. Meetings of the Coptic community representatives with
MB started taking place. Head of the Coptic Assembly Sherif Doss confirmed at least
three meetings in the past few months between the Assembly members and “Al-Hurrya
wa El-Adala” leaders
. Moreover, MB head Mohammed Badie held a telephone
conversation with the Coptic Patriarch Shenouda III and initiated to attract Coptic youth
to the dialogue with their movement
. Jointly with other movement leaders MB head
visited ancient Egyptian temples of Luxor in order to express their support for tourism
and emphasize the importance of ancient Egyptian heritage
. This is especially symbolic
because fundamentalist ideology of Islamism is traditionally hostile towards country’s
pagan past.
After the revolution another radical organization “Jamaa Islamiya” has
recommenced its activity. It is considered to be the one standing behind the murder of
The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood. Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke. Foreign Affairs, March/April 2007
Head of Coptic Assembly Praises Muslim Brotherhood // Ikhwanweb, 02.08.2011.
MB chairman launches initiative to engage in dialogue with Coptic youth // Ikhwanweb, 22.03.2011.
Muslim Brotherhood Chairman Visits Luxor Temple, Hails Ancient Civilization // Ikhwanweb, 07.09.2011.
country’s president Anwar Sadat in 1981. According to its leadership statements, the
organization is not seeking power, but needs to be legalized in order to disseminate its
ideas in the society. Leaders of the movement have already registered their own political
party “Al Binaa wa Al Tanmiya” (“Building and Development”), which, according to
their words, is to become secular “but with Islamic identity”
However the most unexpected religious force that has significantly strengthened
its activity after the Egyptian revolution were Salafites. Various groups of devotees to
allegedly “real”, “initial”, “pure” Islam used to exist in the country before, but they were
hardly seen as a unified Salafi movement. During the past few years Salafites
broadcasted their ideas using at least tens of satellite TV channels, while the programmes
predominantly consisted from preaching by the popular Salafi sheikhs. Today Salafism
adherents assert themselves as a very powerful community. Despite the fact that
Salafites are the least politicized among other Islamist movements, they are capable to
pose a real threat to secular state. They do not share a unified position regarding their
right or necessity to participate in country’s political life. Nevertheless, political wing
of the movement has continuously demonstrated perfect organizational and mobilization
abilities of its members. Enough to mention that their political party “Nour” (“Light”)
was among the first to be registered in post-revolutionary Egypt getting 27.8% of votes
at the parliamentary elections. The number of Salafites is unknown, but according to one
of the former “Moslem Brotherhood” leaders, it is twenty times bigger than that of the
“Brotherhood”, which is estimated by unofficial sources as ranging from 400 000 to
700 000 members. There is an opinion that today the number of Salafites in Egypt
reaches 5 million people.
Relations between Salafites and “Moslem Brotherhood” are tense: the first
consider MB’s decision to support the idea of secular civil state in Egypt is a betrayal of
Islam. While Salafites are being an obvious obstacle for MB by attracting the voices of
the most religiously conservative segment of Egyptian population, who previously used
to sympathize with the MB.
Muslim Brothers, Jihadists and Salafists: Egypt's Islamists come in from the cold // Ahram Online. 18.03.2011
For the first time in the modern history of Egypt a Coptic party “Haq” (“Truth”)
was established and headed by a Christian female Mariam Milad. Presently there are
more than hundred secularly-oriented parties and movements launched by activists of
liberal, socialist, social-democratic and other views.
The post-revolutionary Egypt is characterized by intensified religiousness: on the
one hand, it displays in greater number of women wearing niqab, bearded men in Salafi
clothes as well as numerous banners and posters calling for genuine Islam and on the
other growing influence of secular tendencies is obvious. Due to activation of secularity
the number of people praying in the public transportation and governmental offices is
Today’s post-revolutionary Egypt is witnessing two multi-directional processes:
religiousness and secularization. The conflict of these two tendencies is swiftly shifting
from social sphere to political one. Thus, during the parliamentary elections as much as
69% of votes were given to the parties belonging to either MB or Salafites, while
representatives of secular forces gained a bit less than 20%. Yet it should be noted that
despite becoming a minority secularists are represented by country’s prominent and
influential figures.
In June 2012 after the second round of presidential elections MB candidate
Mohammed Moursi became Egypt’s leader. Despite his assurances that he would be “a
president for all Egyptians” secular forces fear that the new president would be
stimulating Egypt’s Islamization as this has always been MB’s formulated target. At the
same time intentions of Islamists clash with the significant secular segment in the
Egyptian society: 10% of Coptic population, Western influence on the country as well
as vital necessity to increase the tourist flow one of country’s major sources of income.
Future of Egypt as well as the entire Arab region will depend on the way the new
Egyptian government will handle the conflict of religion and secularism.
Mona Khalil is a postgraduate at the Philosophy Department of the Moscow State
Institute of International Relations (MGIMO).
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