Discussion Papers

No.841 Islam and State Relations in Egypt: Containment and Appropriation as a Source of Political Authority

by Housam Darwisheh

March 2022


Following the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the political and economic reasons behind the success of the “counter-revolutionary” forces and Egypt’s resurgent authoritarianism have been explored by several scholars, but less attention has been paid to the role of state-controlled religious discourse in suppressing dissent and enforcing obedience to the regime. Because the Egyptian military’s overthrow of the elected civilian president Muhammad Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government on July 3, 2013, has been touted as a secularist move against an “Islamist” autocrat, the state’s long use of religion in establishing itself and securing its legitimacy has been overlooked. The current regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has constantly accused the Muslim Brotherhood of exploiting religion to perpetuate their power, claiming that religion and politics should not be mixed. The paper contends, however, that successive Egyptian regimes have meshed with Islam in their efforts to assert their authority and quell political opposition. The paper explores how the modern state formation in Egypt has involved the steady manipulation of religion since the reign of Muhammad Ali (1769–1849). More specifically, the paper shows that there were religious dimensions to the steady imposition of state authority which, arguably, remains to this day. It further demonstrates how Egypt’s ruling “secular” regimes since the 1950s, who like to promote themselves as progressive and reformist, do in fact control and manipulate religion to maintain their hold on power.

Keywords: Egypt, state, religious authority, political Islam

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