Over the past few months, the Egyptian government has tightened its grip on mosques and unlicensed imams as part of a general crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, which took power in June 2014, has stressed the need to protect state institutions and has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of seeking to destabilize it to create chaos, as happened in neighboring countries. Public religious activities in particular are seen as a key method of outreach for the Muslim Brotherhood. Under the leadership of Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, head of the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the body tasked with overseeing religious affairs, a number of measures have been enacted to end the religious sphere’s political activities and its autonomy from the state.

The aim of these policies is to strengthen state control over the public sphere and religious activities in particular. Yet they could make things more difficult for the regime by leading to the emergence of a parallel religious sphere that escapes the control of state institutions and offers an environment for radical Islamist groups to disseminate their ideas and recruit new members.

The Religious Sphere Under Mubarak

Georges Fahmi
Fahmi was a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focused on religious actors in democratic transition, the interplay between state and religion, and religious minorities and citizenship.
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While law number 157 of 1960 gives the Ministry of Religious Endowments administrative control over all mosques in Egypt, that legal right has been difficult to implement. 

In the 1990s, under former president Hosni Mubarak, the ministry announced plans to supervise all mosques in Egypt by 2000. This annexation process, however, existed mostly in form but not practice. Religious movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists preached in a large number of mosques without allowing the ministry’s approved imams to ascend the pulpit. 

A major reason for this is that the Egyptian state did not have the financial and human resources necessary to tighten its grip on those practices. The ministry did not have enough registered imams to populate Egypt’s mosques. Financial shortages also meant that the ministry was unable to pay salaries to people working in those mosques—usually between two and five individuals, including a worker, a muezzin (the one who calls Muslims to prayer), a ritual maker, and an imam. 

The Mubarak government also chose not to crack down on certain forces. It had attempted to grant some Islamic groups relative freedom as both a reward for adhering to the ways of the regime and a tool to ensure adherence. Mubarak had allowed religious associations such as al-Jamiya al-Shariya, one of the most established national Islamic organizations in Egypt, and al-Dawa al-Salafiyya (the Salafist Call) to have a margin of freedom. In return, these movements refrained from criticizing the government and its policies. 

All of this meant that the state was effectively controlling and supervising less than half of Egypt’s mosques before July 3, 2013, when the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted from power. 

Religious Control After Morsi’s Ouster

Under the Muslim Brotherhood regime, members of the group were appointed to key positions inside the Ministry of Religious Endowments regardless of their qualifications as part of an attempt to gain control of mosques. The regime sought to use the religious discourse to serve its aims and to delegitimize its opponents. The ministry also suspended imams known for their critical position of the Muslim Brotherhood, as was the case with Mazhar Shahin, the imam of Omar Makram Mosque in Tahrir Square. Disappointed by these policies, a number of imams took to the street to protest what they perceived to be the “Brotherhoodization” of the ministry.

Because of these measures taken during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime that took power after Morsi fell was concerned that religious establishments might pose a threat to its rule. The military-backed government consequently sought to implement measures that would give the state an absolute monopoly over the religious sphere and prevent any other political group from competing with the state.

The drive to control religious institutions began in March 2014, when the Ministry of Religious Endowments issued decision number 64 to bring all mosques and oratories in Egypt under its control. The decision represented an enforcement of law number 157, which had never been implemented. In June, then interim president Adly Mansour promulgated law number 51 that organized sermons and religious studies in Egypt’s mosques. The law prohibited people from delivering sermons that did not have official authorization. Those authorized to preach included graduates of al-Azhar, the country’s premier religious institution, and preachers trained by institutes affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Endowments. According to the same law, only the minister of religious endowments and the grand sheikh of al-Azhar can grant preaching permits. This law allowed the ministry to ban from preaching in mosques 12,000 preachers who had no religious education at al-Azhar.

Likewise, the content of Friday sermons was standardized across Egypt, with the ministry setting the topic and main themes of sermons before prayers. Moreover, in June 2014, in cooperation with Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar, the ministry published the preaching code of ethics. These new guidelines required that all mosques be exclusively supervised by the Ministry of Religious Endowments. This code also stated that mosques cannot be exploited to achieve political, partisan, or electoral benefits. 

The ministry justifies these policies on the grounds that they will thwart any attempt to use the mosques for electoral gains. Minister Gomaa has warned that the Muslim Brotherhood could once again take over the public religious sphere should the ministry lose control of the mosques. 

Yet, while the new measures seem to target the Muslim Brotherhood, they reach other religious groups as well, including some that were neutral during the political struggle following Morsi’s ouster. The ministry asked al-Jamiya al-Shariya, for instance, to hand its mosques over and to put its religious institutes under the state’s supervision. Some sheikhs from other groups that had in fact backed the military’s political process, like the Salafist Call, were not granted authorization to preach because they were accused of using their religious activities to serve the political goals of the Salafist Nour Party. The list of prohibited preachers included the deputy head of the Salafist Call, Sheikh Yasser Borhami.

The Nour Party has been attempting to obtain official permission from the Ministry of Religious Endowments to allow Salafist sheikhs to preach. However, the ministry insists that the Salafist preachers must disavow participation in politics before going back to the mosques. Those preachers used the mosques during the transitional period following the fall of Mubarak to influence the political attitudes of their audience, particularly during the elections. While the Salafist Call supported the military intervention in July 2013, the ministry fears their mobilization power, especially as the parliamentary election approaches. 

These developments indicate that the ministry seeks to crack down on not only current opposition to the regime but also any future resistance that may arise from various religious authorities or institutions within the religious sphere.

Can the Ministry Control the Religious Sphere? 

So far, then, the ministry has succeeded in extending its control over Egypt’s mosques and preachers. There are a number of reasons the current regime has succeeded where its predecessors had failed. 

Unlike the Mubarak era, Sisi’s current political regime tends to be less interested in reaching an understanding with religious forces, including allies like the Nour Party. It is also more willing to tighten its grip on the religious sphere. To that end, the regime relies on the support of a large section of Egyptian society and the sweeping victory of Sisi in the May 2014 presidential elections. The adverse effects of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to exploit religion in order to achieve political goals, particularly the high level of polarization in the religious sphere, have bolstered Sisi’s mandate in this regard. 

In addition, the ministry has undertaken steps to overcome the lack of financial and human resources. So far, it has prohibited holding Friday sermons in oratories and small mosques in order to limit the number of preachers needed. The ministry has also opened the door to paid preaching positions (preaching only on Fridays) for al-Azhar graduates and preachers trained by institutes affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Endowments. While the number of permanent imams amounts to 58,000, the ministry has increased the number of paid imams to 38,000 from 21,000, totaling about 96,000 imams. This will enable the ministry to cover all of Egypt’s large mosques, numbering under 80,000, during Friday’s prayer.

Finally, the appointment of Gomaa as minister has facilitated the changes. Gomaa had worked for some time in al-Jamiya al-Shariya. In that position, he acquired considerable knowledge of the nature of the ministry’s relationship with religious associations and affiliated mosques. He understands the obstacles that prevented the state from controlling the religious sphere in the past and knows the practical measures that should be implemented to overcome these obstacles. 

A Success Story for Now

The Ministry of Religious Endowments has overcome institutional obstacles and is on track to establish full control over all of Egypt’s mosques. Yet these policies could have adverse effects, including a loss of the Egyptian people’s confidence in the official religious establishment. Egyptians may then seek out a more independent religious discourse, which in turn could lead to the emergence of a parallel religious sphere through social media or religious studies outside the mosques. 

A past example provides a case in point. Under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, strict regulations weakened the influence of official religious institutions and led to these institutions losing credibility. They came to be viewed as a mouthpiece for the political regime. This allowed religious organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to spread throughout the unofficial religious sphere during the 1970s by engaging in charity work, education, and preaching. Through these activities, they connected directly with citizens, which increased support for them among the public. While state religious institutions looked less credible and inefficient, Islamic actors have proven to be independent and well organized. 

The Islamic religious field is characterized by a diversity of ideas and organizational structures, which makes it impossible to apply uniform nationalization policies to it. The state’s desire for control leaves some populations—particularly the youth—with no room to express their opinions and beliefs, driving them to other outlets. 

The parallel religious spheres that develop—state sponsored versus independent—can create breeding grounds for the newly emerging violent religious movements, such as Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), which has claimed responsibility for several attacks on police forces in recent months.

Contrary to the current ministry’s policies, the state should include rather than exclude Egypt’s diverse religious movements. The Egyptian state, represented by the Ministry of Religious Endowments on this issue, should manage the religious sphere based on impartial and equitable rules that apply without exception to all religious actors. In this bid for inclusion, any intervention by the ministry should be limited to cases where the religious discourse violates the law, like incitement to violence or hatred. Such an approach would do the most to curb violence and extremism and further the state’s long-term goal of ensuring stability.

Georges Fahmi is a researcher at the Arab Forum for Alternatives in Egypt. He holds a doctorate from the European University Institute in Italy. His research interests include relations between the religious sphere and the state, democratization, and religious minorities in the Middle East.