In order to get a clear view of things and not to think overwhelmed by fear, there seems to be need for an analysis of the relations between religion and politics in the Egyptian context.
A fundamental fact of the Egyptian reality must first of all be remembered: the omnipresence of the religious factor
. This does not go back to the arrival of Islam. The Egyptian people has had religion in its blood at least since the time of the Pharaohs.Even today in the XXI century, the Egyptians are very religious, whether they be Christians or Muslims. Religion is present in their names (if someone’s name is Mohamed or Guirguis, Ahmed or Boutros, it is immediately clear who one is talking to), in the salutations (more or less religious, above all for the Muslims), in the way of dressing and accepting what life has in store: the religious element pervades everyone’s daily life and identity.
Since February 2012 the Egyptians have set out on a democratic adventure, perhaps for the first time in their history: the people has been called upon to pronounce on its own destiny. In March 2011 a referendum was held to change the constitution that had been made to measure for Mubarak; later on in November they voted for the deputies and elected a president of the Republic with universal suffrage. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has supreme power during the transition phase, has formally prohibited religious groups, but it is clear that religion was a ‘marker’, a decisive criterion of reference in the choice of the electors. In any case this is the hypothesis put forward to explain the massively Islamist vote in the autumn of 2011: this reflects the religious identity of 90% of the Egyptians. The same hypothesis is also true for the Christians: it is not very likely that many Copts voted for Muslim candidates.
The Egyptians voted according to their religious belonging.
A certain evolution seems to have taken place during the presidential campaign, in which it was evident that a great number of Egyptians distanced themselves and broke away from the explicitly Islamist candidates. Thus the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Morsi, got only 25% of the votes in the first round, while a candidate of a Nasserist party, Hamdeen Sabbahi, surprisingly reached 20%. The issues defended by Sabbahi are social justice, the defence of the working classes (peasants, labourers), which enticed a great number of Muslims who had voted for an Islamist in the first round.
In the second round Morsi got 51.7% of the votes out of a total of 51% of voters. This victory must not however hide a certain distancing from the Islamist leaders. This shows that a political debate is under way in the country, just a short time after a vote that was to a large extent religious. It must be said that the Muslim Brotherhood is still vague in its stance with regard to the meaning of the application of the sharia they are proposing. According to them, they are symbolic measures aimed at moralising social life: alcohol restrictions, decent clothing for tourists, etc. The MPs who were elected widely debated on these questions which contributed to considerably discrediting them in the eyes of the Egyptians, who expected solutions to real problems from their representatives: housing, the education system, public transport, hospitals. Until now the Salafites have aspired to obtaining the control of important ministries like education.
The position of al-Azhar constitutes another important factor of the evolution under way. An Egyptian religious and academic institution dating back to over one thousand years ago (founded in 988), al-Azhar has enormous prestige in the Sunni world. Directed by a grand Imam, Sheikh al-Azhar, its influence passes through its numerous pupils and students (over 400,000), spread all over Egypt and in nearby countries (Gaza, Sudan). Nasser had attempted to limit its influence by reserving the right to appoint the grand Imam and incorporating its financial resources (waqf) into the Ministry of Religious Affairs controlled by the state. With the passing of the Imam under the control of the regime, Al-Azhar partly lost its prestige, even if, at the same time, the university has been modernised and has opened numerous civil faculties next to the traditionally religious ones (Arabic, sharia, fundamentals of religion).
The present grand Imam, Dr. Ahmed al-Tayyeb, is at the same time a true academic, with a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne, and a true cleric coming from the Sufi confraternity of High Egypt. Before the unrest threatening the country, the grand Imam decided to intervene in the public debate by means of various initiatives: the creation of a place for dialogue on social issues (Egyptian Family House); the publication in June 2011 of a text of eleven points in which al-Azhar pronounces on ‘the creation of a national, democratic, constitutional and modern state, founded on a constitution approved by the nation, which guarantees the separation of powers of the various main institutions’ (article 1). This text is of crucial importance since it takes a distance from the possibility of a theocratic state, even though stating that the constitution must be ‘in accordance with the basic concepts of Islam’. Lastly in January 2012, al-Azhar made a statement on the fundamental freedoms which every Egyptian must be guaranteed.
The university furthermore played a moderate role, in particular when some Salafites attacked the Sufi mausoleums, which was condemned by the Imam. Lately al-Azhar has been hoping to recover its independence from political power, but if the latter should fall into the hands of the Salafites they would probably try to take control, given the ideological importance of al-Alzhar’s standpoints.
Unlike the Muslims who, being rather numerous, it seems appreciated the political leaders, the Christians kept to a principle of caution: do everything to limit the power of the Islamists in the country. This concern would have played a significant role in the performance of General Ahmed Shafiq, who reached the second round of the presidential elections, while Amr Moussa was expected to. It must be said that the Orthodox Copt community has been a little confused since the death of Pope Shenouda in April 2012. All eyes are on the synod that will discuss the possible candidates for his succession. The choice should not be made before October or November and the Orthodox Copt Church no longer has an undisputed head to lead it and whose word has the force of law.
There might be an evolution here too: some Copts do nothing to hide the desire for more room for debate and discourse within their Church, but the model of submission towards priests and bishops remains dominant.
Lastly, we have the impression that the use of the religious factor by the politicians is extremely uncouth, and is continuously being spoken about. The Islam that openly and continuously shows itself in the public sphere is a bigoted Islam, which is concerned with what is seen and said (the debate revolves around halal or haram), while the real challenges of the country are social emergencies: the proposals for young people, what the religions say about social justice, distribution of wealth, etc.
A certain triumph of the conservative currents coming from the Gulf can be seen in this. Fatwas are increasing incoherently and no project can be seen coming out of a society in which the clerics would have something constructive and consistent to propose. At the most they once again launch a series of prohibitions. The Christians are no more creative than the Muslims in this, including the Catholic Church which could take advantage of its tiny number to dare a free, creative and demanding word. How long will this supremacy by the clerics last? It is not too much to think that the taste for words and debate, born from the revolution and which now seems to be acquired by the people, will in the end be a challenge both for the political leaders and the religious chiefs.
(In the photo on the top: Cairo, April 2011. Students praying during a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Technological Research ©Marie Girod/Jari-Miro.posterous.com 2011)