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Op-Ed

What Role Do Egyptians Want for Religion?

H.A. Hellyer

The ousting of ‘former’ President Mohammed Morsi by the military, and the interim government’s resolve to rewrite the 2012 constitution, raise questions about the use of religion in public life. The head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, has asked for a change to the wording of an article relating to religious rules, while Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam announced his rejection of the idea of a theocratic state. Mohamed Abu al-Ghar, a constituent assembly member from the Social Democrats, has separately advocated that Islamic law have a role in legislation, which appears to be a matter of consensus.

Do Egyptians want religion to have a role in the public arena? If so, what sort of role?

New polling data appear to confirm a general trend that confirms conservative religious attitudes while showing scepticism towards political parties declaring a monopoly on religion. In general, Egyptians are a conservative people, and religion is a fundamental part of their identity – this is true whether they are Muslim or Christian. Recurring surveys done by Gallup and now TahrirTrends over the past three years indicate how Egyptians are clear about their identification with religion. 98 per cent of those surveyed by Tahrir Trends considered religion to be ‘very important’ on a day-to-day level. The remainder said ‘somewhat important’.

That feeling indicates, however, an affinity to religion as an identity marker – it does not necessarily indicate support for a specific political role for religion, or support for specific Islamist political parties. There would have to be other data to support such suppositions. If not, religious conservatism might be conflated with support for Islamism, which is misleading in the Egyptian context.

Strong Support for the Azhar establishment and Religious Institutions

The two main political Islamist groupings in Egypt (the Freedom and Justice Party of the largely modernist Salafi group of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nour Party of the purist Salafis), are often described in terms of their differences with the mainstream orthopraxis of the Azhar tradition in Egypt. They differ on a number of varying levels, including religious, their methodological approach to the Islamic canon, and attitudes to political engagement.

Nevertheless, activists from both of those groups have also entered Al-Azhar University as students and faculty staff. In the main, however, the Azhar establishment’s leadership is generally opposed to both the modernist Salafi trend as well as the purist one. Under Morsi’s tenure, this sort of tension became quite evident. This is not to say that there are not tensions as well within the Azhari establishment that holds to its mainstream tradition – particularly with regards to the nature of the relationship between the Azhar and the state. Here too there are differences between quietists acquiescing to the state and those opposed to legitimising the power of the state, instead of calling power to account, which has great precedent in the scholastic tradition.

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Those differences matter because religious conservatism in Egypt, which accounts for large swathes of the population, is more linked to the historical expression of Islam as exemplified by the Azhar than it is to the modern political expressions of the Muslim Brotherhood and the various Salafi movements.

When Gallup surveyed Egyptians in December 2011, it found that 95% of Egyptians had confidence in the Al-Azhar. When TahrirTrends asked a similar question in May/June 2013, the results indicated that 91% of Egyptians had either a great deal of confidence (79%) or some confidence (12%) in religious institutions in general.

This has repercussions for the evolving role of religion in the public arena, where the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces might find themselves under a certain amount of pressure, with no corollary affect on or from the religious conservatism of Egyptians.

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One ought to consider: Defence Minister Abdal-Fattah al-Sissi is regarded as a religious conservative, while not an Islamist. In this regard, he is likely to have respect for the religious institutions of Egypt, while not necessarily sympathetic to any Islamist political party.

The New Constitutional Proposals

These sorts of discussions will become more relevant as the interim government’s road-map seeks to amend Egypt’s constitution, with specific articles possibly pertaining to religion in politics. In particular, the suggestion of constitutionally banning political parties with a ‘religious reference’ (the phrase used in Egyptian political discourse) will be tabled for the constitutional amendment process to consider.

However, it is difficult to see how such an article would be implemented, and in any case, it would require a definition of ‘religious reference’ in a country that is indelibly imbued with religion. Indeed, the state’s narrative itself is being supported in the public arena at present by the instrumentalisation of religion by some religious personalities linked to Al-Azhar.

If parties established with a ‘religious reference’ were allowed to form, and continued to use the same sort of language, would they be subjected to these restrictions? If religious parties were subject to a ban, their leaders could easily circumvent such an article, by simply making their arguments in the language of non-religious rational, nationalistic discourse.

Of course, that may indeed be the point. From all indications, the interim government is not interested in removing religion from the public arena, or from the state. Politicians at all levels still utilise religious vocabulary, be it the interim president, the prime minister or the defence minister. Al-Azhar is a state institution; and there is a fatwa issuing institution under the authority of the Ministry of Justice.

Instead, the type of secularism that the Egyptian authorities want to institute is not one where there is a sharp separation between the state and religion, or even politics and religion. But it may very well be one where there is a clear distinction between political parties and religion. That might be difficult to police and enforce, as noted above – partly due to the vagueness of what the authorities seem to want.

The clearest indication may have come from the former vice-president El-Baradei spoke on this issue during an interview on the Hayah TV channel point. At the time, he explicitly addressed no opposition to the involvement of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, or the Salafi Noor Party – but he did reject parties established ‘on the basis’ of religion. It may be a subtle point, but it has currency – a party with a ‘religious reference’ may not particularly the root of any controversy, but as far as El-Baradei is concerned, such a politician should not speak in the ‘name of God’ or the ‘name of Islam’. His speech is not ‘holy’ – it is a worldly political argument. That distinction may be lost outside of Egypt, but represents a feeling that has been expressed in various media within Egypt.

Separating Religion and Politics

How does this relate, then, to Egyptian sensitivities relating to religious based parties? Or perhaps if we went further: how does it relate to religious leaders engaging in legislative matters?

When in late May/early June Egyptians were asked, ‘regardless of whether or not you would support them, do you think parties based primarily on religious identity, regardless of the religion involved, are a good idea?’, 65% of Egyptians said they would be a bad idea – only 31% said they would be a good idea.

On the societal level, a broad majority of Egyptians would prefer not to have such parties. However, this does not necessarily mean that they would support legislation that banned such parties.

TahrirTrends also asked what Egyptians thought the role of religious leaders should have in the area of writing national legislation. The answers seem to confirm that while Egyptians may indeed think very highly of religion as an identity marker, and respect religious institutions overwhelmingly, they do not necessarily translate this into support for providing religious leaders with a direct role in writing national laws to which they would all be subjected to.

When Gallup asked a similar question in 2011, shortly after the 25 January uprising, 69% of Egyptians said that religious leaders should advise those in authority with writing national legislation; 14% said they should have full authority in writing national legislation; 9% said no authority at all; and 8% either refused the question or said they did not know.

Two years later when TahrirTrends asked its question, the results indicated a shift. Broadly speaking, around a third of Egyptians do want religious leaders to advise those in authority with writing legislation (60%), although less than when Gallup conducted its poll in earlier 2011. The number of people, however, that said they should have no role at all, increased quite significantly from 9% to 23%. It is difficult to relate this change directly to Islamist rule per se, as the actual role of religious leaders in writing legislation did not change at all in the past few years. Nevertheless, it is clear that between 2011 and 2013, Egyptians began to somewhat reassess their feelings around the theoretical engagement of religious leaders in the legislative process.

The overall picture, therefore, around Egyptian attitudes vis-à-vis religion and the public arena is a rather complex and complicated one. Theocratic rule would never be popular in Egypt, whether of the Iranian style, or any other version. A citizenry that has such respect for religious institutions unsurprisingly means that an advisory role for religious leaders (i.e., non-binding) would perhaps be acceptable to a majority, but there would still be significant resistance in that regard. The significance of religion in terms of Egyptian identity notwithstanding, most Egyptians are unfavourable towards parties based primarily on religious identity.

None of this ought to imply that Egyptians would back a legal ban on any particular policy – citizens can think a particular thing is not a good idea without wanting a legal or constitutional stipulation reflecting their preferences. Nevertheless, it does suggest that parties and politicians in Egypt, of any stripe or disposition, that seek to instrumentalise religion in any way might be well advised to think twice.