Egypt: Religiosity and government

Sent On: 
Mon, 2022-01-24
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The power of religion among the people of Egypt is great and widely recognized. This helped Islamists movements to overthrow the regime of President Hosni Mubarak [Ḥusnī Mubārak] in 2011 and brought President Muhammad Mursi [Muḥammad Mursī] to power in 2012-2013. But how to measure Egyptian religiosity? Previous presidents had to deal with Egypt’s religiosity. How is President Abdelfattah al-Sisi [‘Abd al-Fattāḥ al-Sīsī] doing this? What are the reforms in religious education he has been advocating? I have addressed these questions in a report for Arab-West Report.


Non-Islamist Parties, New Wafd, the Egyptian Bloc, NDP offshoots, the Reform and Development Party and Justice Party obtained in the Parliamentary elections of 2011-2012  27,4 % of the votes. Parties that were outspoken Islamist (Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood) obtained 65,3% of the votes. The Islamists lost substantially in the second round of the 2012 presidential elections. Candidates that were seen as opponents of Islamist policies obtained in the first round 55,51% of the vote and Islamist’s candidates obtained 43,26% of the vote. The second round limited the choice between a Muslim Brotherhood candidate and an army candidate which made many liberals and left-wing Egyptians vote for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. The second round of the 2012 presidential elections is, therefore, not a good benchmark. The outcome of the second round was also tight and disputed resulting in negotiations about who had won these elections.


Religiosity is often believed to be associated to Islamists, Muslim Brothers and Salafis of different kinds but this is mistaken. Many, but not all, Islamists believe that Islam should play a dominating role in Egyptian politics. Many non-Islamists are religious but have reservations about using Islam as a tool in politics.


It is widely believed that Islamists have lost further ground in Egyptian society. On July 13, 2015, President al-Sīsī gave a landmark speech about the need to renew the religious discourse and linked this to counter-terrorism. He also stated youth turning atheists is not a threat to the state. His speech shocked many clergy.


Liberal Egyptian blogger Hassan Kamal [Ḥassan Kamāl] analysed al-Sīsī’s speech and believes he wants to have an intellectual revolution that is comparable to the intellectual revolution in the West in the past. Al-Azhar failed to lead this intellectual revolution because they stifled free discussions about the Islamic heritage. They wanted to fight atheism.


“God created human being to worship him optionally not compulsory, and God will ask them about their performance in the life after death. So, no one has right to make people to worship God and no one has right to say that they are right and the rest of people are wrong,” al-Sīsī said. Al-Sīsī also spoke about respecting pluralism.


President al-Sīsī sparked a new storm in February 2021 when he said that verses of the Qur’an and hadith “might be interpreted by teachers in an undesirable way and promote extremist ideas,” often by teachers in history, language and geography classes. This means al-Sīsī is addressing a long-standing critique I have heard throughout the years from Egyptian educational experts.


President al-Sīsī is known to be a Muslim believer but “with regard to the fight against religious extremism, especially what he considers to be representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, he does not intend to compromise,” Zvi Bar’el wrote in Haaretz. Neither is he “a follower of the enlightened and liberal nationalism that zealously separates religion and state.” Volkhard Windfuhr (1937-2020), late chairman of the Cairo Foreign Press Association, always well informed and well connected, voiced he same views in a meeting I had with him on December 9, 2019.


The Ministry of Education is adding a new textbook to the curriculum “that will show the liberal side of religion, will emphasize religions' common denominators and will teach tolerance. The discussion roused public criticism – both because it took place in the National Security Council rather than the Education Committee, which deals with curriculum content, and because of the directives themselves.”


For the full text of my report please click here.



January 24, 2022


Cornelis Hulsman

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report