Religion and politics are two of the most important ideational creations of the human race. While philosophers and statesmen have warned time and again not to intermesh the two, yet the mixing of religion and politics is an age old phenomenon. This is more so in the case of Islam in which the politicisation of religion is quite common. This politicisation has shaped Islamic societies across the world since eons. This research paper is aimed studying the role and impact of religion in the political affairs of one of the most important countries in the Middle East – Egypt from the 1950s till present day. The paper will give a nuanced view of the different dimensions of these two important issues before reaching a final conclusion.
Egypt is strategically located in the North Africa Middle East (MENA) region possessing the strategic Suez Canal through which acts one of the lifelines of the global economy. It is bounded by Mediterranean Sea in the north and Red Sea to the south-east. Egyptian society is one of the oldest in the world which boasts of a 5,000 year rich history. The Egyptian society is a melting pot of sorts in the MENA region with people of different cultural, ethnic and religious hues and shades reside. Islam has come to influence every aspect of life of Egyptian society be it popular culture, politics, economics, philosophy, culture etc.
However the most profound impact has been in the realm of politics. Egypt was one of the centres of the Caliphate system in the early and later days of Islamic conquest. It was made a part of the Islamic empire during the time of Umayyad caliphate and since then evolved to become one of the most prosperous and stable provinces of the Islamic empire. Following the disintegration of the Abbasid caliphate, Sultans who styled themselves as Zil-e-Illahi began to rule Egypt.
The decisive moment for Egypt came in the early 15th century when it along with Levant became a part of the flourishing Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans became a caliphate following the capture of Mecca and Medina and the famous and successful 1453 siege of Constantinople.
Since then Egypt became one of the prized provinces of the Ottoman Caliphate; fast forward to the present 20th century with the Ottoman Empire’s power rapidly declining, Egypt became a focal point where the Arabs under the able leadership of TE Lawrence known popularly as Lawrence of Arabia revolted against the Turks and finally succeeded in winning their independence.
Nasserism and the Muslim Brotherhood- two axes of religious impact on Egyptian politics
Jamal Abdel Nasser became the president of Egypt in 1952 at a turbulent time, the cold war had just begun and the two power blocs led by the Soviet Union and the United States of America were competing to outdo the other in the establishment of their respective spheres of influence in almost every geopolitical region of the world. MENA region became a focus especially Egypt.
Nasser was however strictly in favour of keeping religion separate from politics. He was thoroughly influenced by communist ideals and also introduced several economic programmes along communist lines- nationalisation of factories, collectivisation of agriculture, free public education system. At the same time he tried to modernise the society by introduction of new western secular forms of law, institutions etc.
He was an outspoken nationalist, secularist, and socialist who directed educational, land, and economic reforms. He is also responsible for the enlargement and bureaucratization of the state, the institution of a single-party system; and for the empowerment of state security forces to limit speech, assembly, and other constitutional rights granted to Egyptians.
However his modernisation task was complicated by the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hassan Al Banna, an Egyptian watchmaker, school teacher and self taught religious activist established the organisation in 1928 to combat what he saw as the degrading and avaricious effects of foreign influence and secular ways of life which he considered to be an anathema to Islam.
From its early days as an informal gathering of religious Muslims repelled by British domination of Egypt’s Suez Canal Zone, al- Banna’s Brotherhood had grown to a nationwide network of social and political activity with tens of thousands of zealot followers and cells in almost every Egyptian city and an influential propaganda network distributing his commentaries and views on different socio-political events.
The religious nature of Muslim Brotherhood’s activities were seen in its failed 1937-1939 failed anti-British, anti-Zionist Arab Revolt in the British mandate for Palestine. It however attracted a strong scrutiny from Egyptian authorities.
Following an assassination attempt by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954, Nasser consolidated his power against his rivals among the military leaders and arrested President Muhammad Naguib, an ally of the Brotherhood.
While Nasser and the Free Officers had worked closely with the Brotherhood during the revolution, they had divergent visions for independent Egypt that quickly manifested in the months following. In particular, Nasser sought to contain the disruptive power and potential threat of political Islam. Following the assassination attempt, the Egyptian government clamped down on Islamist politics and outlawed the Brotherhood. Nasser and the other Free Officers also actively opposed the Egyptian left, chiefly Egypt’s labour movement.
While Nasser is remembered as an Arab nationalist and Arab socialist who allied himself with the Soviet Union, he also recognized that Islam served as a basic cornerstone of Egyptian identity. He required the compliance of the traditional religious elite, the ‘ulema, and made al-Azhar University, one of the Muslim world’s oldest and most respected universities, a state institution, placing it under government control and assuming the authority to appoint its leaders with the Machiavellian aim of harnessing the power of religion for bolstering state’s power.
Sayid Al Qutb- paragon of Egyptian Islamist extremism
Islam has been facing a crisis with regard to its doctrinal interpretation since the days of the Abbasid caliphate. One of the most contentious issues in this context has been the upsurge in fundamentalist or political Islam or Islamism, without an iota of doubt Islamism was and is a potent threat to the secular fabric of Egyptian society since the 1950s.
Fundamentalist Islam made Egyptian politics more extreme in nature and undermined the spirit of tolerance and dissent ingrained in the Egyptian psyche. The ambiguities which lingered on in Al Banna’s textual work were resolved with an emphatic emphasis in favour of rejection of pluralism and secular international order. The religious scholar and Muslim Brotherhood ideologist Sayyid Qutb gave an exposition of the most learned and influential view of his time. In 1964, while serving life imprisonment for plotting to assassinate the then Egyptian president Nasser, he wrote Milestones, a declaration of war against the existing world order that became a foundational text of modern Islamism.
In Qutb’s view, Islam was a universal system offering the only true form of freedom: freedom from governance by other men, man-made doctrines, or “low associations based on race and colour, language and country, regional and national interests”. Islam’s modern mission in Qutb’s view; was to overthrow them all and replace them with what he took to be a literal, eventually global implementation of the Quran.
The culmination of this process would be “the achievement of the freedom of man on earth- of all mankind throughout the earth”. This would complete the process commenced by the initial wave of Islamic expansion in the seventh and eighth centuries “which was then to be carried throughout the earth to the whole of mankind, as the object of this religion is all humanity and its sphere of action is the whole earth”. Like all utopian projects, this one would require extreme measures to implement. These Qutb assigned to the ideologically pure vanguard institution- which would reject the governments, institutions, and societies prevailing in the region- all of which Qutb branded as “unIslamic and illegal”- and seize the initiative to bringing about a new order by waging a jihad against the infidels who seek to defy the universal call of Allah.
Abul A’la Maududi (1903–1979), was one of the first Islamic thinkers to develop a political vision of Islam and construct a plan of social action to bring his vision to fruition He greatly influenced Qutb by his critique of Western culture and redefinition of Islam to mean a complete submission to Allah without questioning or resistance. He anticipated Qutb’s idea of jahiliyyah by dividing Islam into ‘real’ and ‘deceptive.’ In addition, he viewed philosophy, culture, customs, mysticism, and mores that had developed over the centuries as impure accretions with a Marxist tinge of belonging to the superstructure; thus, he ‘did not view Islamic history as the history of Islam but as the history of un-Islam or jahiliyyah’. Qutb, however, advanced the idea to a more nuanced and radicalized form as he extended the idea to mean both un-Islamic and non-Islamic societies.
Qutb, with vast learning and passionate intensity, had declared war on a state of affairs-brashly secular modernity and Muslim disunity, as ratified by the post World War I territorial settlement in the Middle East-which many Muslims had privately lamented. While most of his contemporaries recoiled from the violent methods he advocated, a committed band of followers – like the vanguard he had envisioned took shape with profound implications for the future of the Egyptian polity.
Ties with Israel- from animosity to amity
Religion also conditioned the Egyptian foreign relations with a number of nation-states; prominent among them is Israel. Since the formation of Israel by the United Nations as the homeland of Jews by partitioning Palestine into two halves Arab states were miffed at it and vowed to destroy Israel and restore the territorial sanctity of Palestine. This resulted in a number of wars between Israel and other Arab states most notably between Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Under Jamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt adopted a hostile attitude to Israel and participated in the 1947 Arab-Israeli war and faced defeat.
However Nasser continued his nefarious attempt to harass Israel by a plethora of ways- blockading the Gulf of Aqaba leading to the port of Eilat, sinking Israeli merchant ships, organising fidayeen strikes (suicide attacks) inside Israel. Hostile relations continued resulting in the 1956 Suez War in which Israel, France and Britain attacked Egypt; Israel captured the entire Sinai Peninsula and although the war ended in mediation by the United Nations aided by the superpowers USA and USSR Israel managed to inflict heavy damage on the Egyptian armed forces especially the Egyptian Navy which would take years to make good. The war however failed to topple Nasser and his prestige as the leader of the Arab world increased manifold.
However Egypt continued with its hostile attitude, this time Russian military advisers began to train Egyptian personnel and the Egyptian government began procuring modern weapons. This resulted in the six-day war of 1967 in which Israel launched air strikes which destroyed most of the Egyptian air force on the ground (5 June). While capturing territories from other Arab states Israel captured the Gaza Strip and the whole of Sinai from Egypt.
The war dealt a devastating blow to Arab morale in general and Egyptian morale in particular. The outcome of the 1973 Yom Kippur war was the same.
It was from this time that the Egyptian political and military top brass thought of the futility of continuing the animosity in ties with Israel; in fact Islamism had rendered Egyptian politics isolated from the rest of the changing world which was slowly but surely embracing multiculturalism and globalisation. It took one man- Anwar Sadat to change that.
Anwar Sadat became the president of Egypt soon after the death of Jamal Abdel Nasser, he realised that Israel couldn’t be destroyed by force and that it was foolish to keep on wasting Egypt’s resources in fruitless wars; but it took great courage to be the first Arab leader to meet the Israelis face to face. Even talking to Israeli leaders would mean that Egypt was conceding the lawful existence of Israel.
Sadat also applied his mastery of symbolism to international relations. His decision to go to Jerusalem was breath-taking in its effect, and his landing on Israeli soil irrevocably changed the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In one gesture granting the Israelis the recognition they had been demanding for decades, Sadat at the same time won an American commitment to aid Egypt in recovering the lands Egypt had lost in war.
Sadat’s decision to go to Jerusalem was surely the most dramatic of his life. It was dramatic not only because it utterly transformed the Middle East, but also because it was a supreme act of faith. Sadat decided to play his primary card — recognition of Israel — out of a conviction that the United States, and particularly President Carter, would not allow his effort to be in vain. The gesture becomes even more impressive when one considers that Sadat had been disappointed with Carter’s election only a year before his trip to Jerusalem, and that the great trust the men had in each other had developed after only a single set of meetings between them.
Sadat chose the gravest of the options before him in November 1977, at a time when the magnitude of the rewards for his actions could not have been determined beforehand. Sadat gambled because he must have understood that the costs of inaction were almost as great as the costs of losing, while the possible rewards for action were much greater. Sadat, and Egypt, won much from his gamble leading to lasting economic and political benefits with the Egyptian-Israeli bonhomie.
This gamble was followed up by the unprecedented Camp David Accord signed between then Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin and Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt with President Jimmy Carter of USA acted as an interlocutor. This transformed the geopolitics of the Middle East forever.
However, a grim incident in 1981 threaten to tear asunder the new found cordiality in Israeli-Egyptian ties- the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 by a fanatic soldier who said the former had done a great disservice to the Islamic and Palestinian cause by siding with the Israelis.
The martyrdom of Anwar Sadat caused Egyptian-Israeli ties to become stronger. The current Egyptian president Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has commented in a recent meeting with his Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid that Egyptian- Israeli ties are enjoying some of the best periods in their diplomatic history. This relationship was furthered solidified by the Abraham Accords signed between Israel and four other Arab states-Morocco, Sudan, Bahrain and UAE in September 2020. Egypt played a crucial role in conducting shuttle diplomacy between them and the other Arab states.
Arab Spring, Islam & Egyptian politics
Arab Spring referred to the broad range of uprisings in different Middle Eastern countries where ordinary citizens particularly the youths rose against their respective tyrannical rulers for the purposing of building a new society. It started from Tunisia where Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali was overthrown from a 35 year stint in power. It soon spread to other parts of the Middle East and had its overarching impact on the Egyptian society.
The uprising led to the stunning downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Tahrir Square, located in the middle of Cairo, became the centre of protests. The Arab Spring in Egypt was orchestrated by the youth of Egypt who protested against low standards of living, scanty employment opportunities, corruption and a plutocracy endemic in the elites.
It was a reaction which was perhaps not thought of in the Middle East earlier, a region which was longed wracked by sectarianism, terrorism with deep doctrinal and religious divisions could see the new generation uniting with the aim of establishing liberal democratic form of government based on the values of the French revolution- liberty, equality and fraternity was mind boggling.
The Arab Spring’s democratic fervour was however short lived. The Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood soon assumed power in September 2012 before the army under Abdel Fatah Al Sisi overthrew the government through a coup d’état and established army rule.
The role of the military in the Arab uprising differs from regime to regime. In Egypt the military were reluctant to intervene against protesters. Erdogan provide two interpretations for this; first, he opine that the military in Egypt enjoys a certain degree of autonomy from the central civilian leadership, secondly, it considered its survival in the face of a popular uprising and mass discontent with the regime. Hence the military’s neutrality, while in some cases siding with the protesters. The posture adopted by the military during the uprising thus shaped the outcome of the uprising decisively. It is important to recall that since the 50’s and 60’s the military had played a key role in regime change or survival. Despite the seemingly claim by the Egyptian military of supporting democratization, there has been the challenge of subjecting the military to democratic civilian control.
The Egyptian military is widely respected by the general populace and deeply interwoven into the domestic economy. The military has been a part of the history of governance in Egypt. They had in 1951 ousted the post-imperial government. Thereafter the military has been involved in Egyptian politics. After the revolution the transition was managed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) composed of senior military officers who sought to protect its economic and political interest. SCAF further continued to interfere in many aspect of the transition. For instance there was delay in holding elections and in producing a constitution. The “coup” over President Morsi’s government revived essentially elements of the Mubarak era, such as the secret police, generals were back in charge of provincial governments, a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and a clamp-down on demonstrations. al-Sisi and the army violently crushed the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal secular opposition. More than 2,500 civilians were killed; with about 16,000 persons jailed. The new constitution enshrined the power and privileges of the armed forces while at the same time curtailing the freedom of assembly and expression.
Present day situation
Egypt today is relatively stable with Abdel Fateh Al Sisi playing a crucial role in keeping the Islamist parties at bay. The evidence of stability is the Conference of Parties (COP) 27 summit hosted by Egypt at the seaside resort of Sharm Al Shiekh.
Christians and Muslims peacefully reside in the country. While there are occasional flare-ups it is not really affecting the secular fabric of the country.
Egypt is a civilisationally rich country. Be it Christianity or Islam Egypt has been able to maintain flexibility with regard to cultural composition. However religion and politics and its intermeshing can lead to fatal consequences as far as multicultural societies and its minorities are concerned. Egypt is no different.
The Middle East is currently experiencing a socio-political churn which is pushing into a vortex of modernity and cultural romanticism. However Islamism is perhaps a force which is too dangerous for any country. It should be noted that the commitment to secularism especially in an Islamic society has been historically weak with the exception of a few countries like Lebanon, Tunisia etc but Egypt too is currently grappling with this problem.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Egyptian government led by the incumbent president Abdel Fateh Al Sisi is ruling the country with an iron fist the forces of Islamism particularly the threat of the Islamic State terror group continues to loom large. Therefore it is very clear that the Egyptian society will continue to be influenced by religion which will condition and influence the politics of the Middle East in general and the country in particular.
Kissinger, H. (2015). Islamism and the Middle East: A World in Disorder. In World order (pp. 96–145). Penguin Books.
Menaldo, M. A. (2014, March 1). Sayyid Qutb’s political and religious thought: The transformation of Jahiliyyah and the implications for Egyptian democracy. Elgar Online: The online content platform for Edward Elgar Publishing. Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.elgaronline.com/view/journals/lath/2-1/lath.2014.01.04.xml
Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser. Religion and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School. (n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://rpl.hds.harvard.edu/faq/gamal-abdel-nasser
Lowe, N. (2013). Conflict in the Middle East. In Mastering modern world history (pp. 225–238). Palgrave Macmillan.
Sadat and his legacy: Egypt and the world, 1977-1997. The Washington Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved November 22, 2022, from https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/sadat-and-his-legacy-egypt-and-world-1977-1997
The writer is a research associate for think tank Defence Research and Studies(DRAS) and a columnist.