Egypt’s President Turns to Religion to Bolster His Authority

Cairo — When President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi opened a much-heralded extension to the Suez Canal in August, the official Friday Prayer sermon that week hailed it as a “gift from God.”

When Egyptian voters elected a new Parliament in December, a preacher on state TV urged its members to “obey those in authority, specifically the highest authority,” and referred indirectly to Mr. Sisi as “God’s shadow on earth.”

And when a Russian airplane leaving the Sharm el Sheik resort crashed in the Sinai Desert in October, killing 224 people and crippling Egyptian tourism, the Ministry of Religious Endowments encouraged clerics to vacation at the deserted resort — notable because many observant Muslims here view it as a sinful fleshpot.

Fears of Islamist rule helped propel Mr. Sisi, then a military general, to power in 2013 following giant protests that led to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government. But as Mr. Sisi wrestles with militant attacks and a struggling economy, he has increasingly turned to religion to bolster his authority and justify a crackdown on his rivals.

In the latest decree, the Ministry of Religious Endowments on Monday instructed preachers that any call to protest on Jan. 25, the fifth anniversary of the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, would lead to “sabotage, murder and destruction,” and constituted a “full crime.”

Such tactics are not novel: Arab leaders have tried for decades to use Islam to boost their legitimacy. Mr. Sisi, the former head of the armed forces, has also presented himself as a reformer, calling publicly for a “religious revolution” to help combat extremism. But rather than spurring discussion about Islam, his approach — shutting unregistered mosques and banning unauthorized preachers while drawing the religious establishment into an uneasy embrace — has had the effect of constricting the debate here.

Those tensions came to the fore recently when a television host who appeared to take up Mr. Sisi’s call for change was assailed by Al Azhar, the 1,000-year-old bastion of Sunni Muslim scholarship in Cairo and Mr. Sisi’s designated vehicle for religious change.

Islam Behery, a popular satellite TV host known for challenging Islamic orthodoxy, has urged Muslims to think critically about some of the sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that jihadists have used to justify violence. “We must confront those books, and break the taboo,” said Mr. Behery, a 37-year-old law graduate, in an interview early last month.

To some Western observers, Mr. Behery seemed to be taking Mr. Sisi’s call for a revolution in Islam at Al Azhar last January. In that address, Mr. Sisi urged Egypt’s clerical leaders to purge Islam of the ideas he said were used by extremists to justify violence and had made the religion “an enemy of the world.”

“It is inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world,” Mr. Sisi warned.


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But Mr. Behery’s ideas offended the scholars at Al Azhar, who accused him of “violating the foundations of Islam” and, with others, brought a slew of court cases against him. One of those cases resulted in a criminal prosecution, and on Dec. 28 Mr. Behery began serving a one-year sentence.

“Egypt is the country of injustice,” Mr. Behery wrote in a Facebook post before he was imprisoned.

The prosecution appeared to signal the limits of Mr. Sisi’s approach to modernizing Islam. Al Azhar, which is state-funded, has hewed closely to Egypt’s rulers for the past six decades, yet at the same time jealously defended its position as Egypt’s premier authority on Islam.

Some clerics appeared to take Mr. Sisi’s speech last year as an attack on the integrity of Al Azhar itself, said Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University who specializes in the Middle East.

“For people within Al Azhar, there was something remarkable and distasteful about a president and a general lecturing them about religion,” he said. “You saw some pushback, in the form of a proxy struggle. Then there was the episode with Islam Behery.”

Still, the relationship between the different arms of the Egyptian state is notoriously hard to read, and some experts see the court prosecution as an example of Al Azhar flexing its institutional muscle. In public, Al Azhar has always been loudly supportive of Mr. Sisi.

Shortly after the takeover, the grand imam of Al Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, sat by the general’s side at his inaugural news conference.

Weeks later, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, a senior Al Azhar cleric, justified violence against Muslim Brotherhood supporters, whom he described as “putrid people” and “riffraff.”

“The angels are supporting you from heaven,” Sheikh Gomaa told police and military leaders.

Yet at the same time, Al Azhar has quietly sought to preserve its room for maneuver — much as the courts and the security services have done — particularly in matters of Islamic theology.

“I don’t see him as a dictator,” said Ashraf El-Sherif, a lecturer in political science at the American University in Cairo, referring to Mr. Sisi. “He’s the representative of an alliance of dictatorial state institutions.”

The public blessings of the religious establishment may give Mr. Sisi, himself an observant Muslim, a certain legitimacy in the eyes of many Egyptians. But there are also signs that his approach may irk younger Egyptians who remember the period after the 2011 uprising when state control of religious discourse ended for a time.

Last month Sheikh Tayeb paid a rare visit to Cairo University, where he answered questions from disgruntled students about a contentious move — the university authorities had just demolished one mosque on campus, and closed several smaller ones, in the name of “fragmenting the foundations of radicalism.” Now, the university students pray in one central mosque.

The grand imam’s answers did not satisfy everyone.

“It’s just another way of exerting control,” Amira Abd el Sayed, 20, said recently during her lunchtime break. “Already there is no democracy, and now they are telling us where to pray. The government is pressuring the youth, and it’s going to blow up in their faces.”

The campus, once a hotbed of dissent, is a microcosm of Egyptian society. Some students were reluctant to speak publicly, citing fear of government informers; others trenchantly supported the crackdown. “It’s important to control the discussion of religion,” said Adam Mustafa, a law student. “The media has made this into an issue, not the students.”

Others were not afraid to dismiss Al Azhar’s authority. Sheikh Tayeb was “not even a proper sheikh,” or religious scholar, said Amira Mohamed, one of a group of students in hijab sipping coffee on a lawn. “In reality, the fatwa came from the president. Everyone knows that.”

The government says tough measures are required to fend off the threat of violent extremism. In Sinai, the military is battling a local branch of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, that claims to have downed the Russian plane in October. On the ideological front, officials monitor extremist publications in a host of languages, including Chinese and Urdu, and track fatwas issued by radical preachers.

“We have the cure to the diseases that ISIS and other groups are spreading,” said Dr. Ibrahim Negm of Dar al-Ifta, a state-funded body that issues fatwas, or religious edicts.

For others, the talk of regulating Islam is thinly veiled political repression. “There are no more outlets for discussion,” said Ali Kandil, a schoolteacher in a wealthy Cairo suburb who was ousted from his position as a prayer leader because he had spoken publicly against “tyrants.” “If anyone talks, he is killed or arrested,” he said. “If he’s not arrested, he flees the country. And if he flees, he is branded as a traitor.”

Analysts warn of the perils of the growing polarization in Egypt: While the Muslim Brotherhood maintains its official policy of eschewing violence, some members have defended attacks in Cairo last year as necessary “retribution” against the government.

A recent official Friday Prayer sermon offered a clue to Mr. Sisi’s next cause of worry: the potential for unrest on Jan. 25.

Pointing to the “ruin and chaos” that political upheaval wrought in neighboring Arab countries, the 3,100-word official sermon warned against any “destructive” public protests in Egypt.

“To avoid evil and please God,” it said, “a person shall obey the rulers.”