Santa Clara University



1. Brief Introduction
2. A Short Introductory Course
3. Other Resource Materials
4. Recent Articles

1. Brief Introduction to Religion and Politics in Egypt

Egypt has a population of 83.7 million, the largest in the Arab world, with a population growth rate of 1.92% (July 2012 est). It had a 2010 medium-level HDI ranking of #101 and a 2012 CPI ranking of 32 (118th globally). The CIA Factbook lists Egypt as 90% Muslim (mostly Sunni); 9% Coptic Christian, and 1% other Christian. Egyptians retain their pride in being one of the world’s great historic civilizations, and this pride, as in the Iranian case, serves as a second cultural focus along with Islam. The Persians defeated the last native Egyptian dynasty in 341 B.C.E. These conquerors were followed by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Byzantines. Coptic Christians often point out that they preceded Islam.  In the seventh century, the Arabs brought Islam and the Arabic language. The local Muslim Mamluks governed from the thirteenth century until the Ottoman Conquest of 1517. The completion of the Suez Canal in 1869 made Egypt one of the world’s great transportation and communication hubs. The canal became especially important for linking Britain with its colony India and the rest of the East. Nominally subject to the Ottomans until 1914, Egypt entered the British sphere of influence and then became independent following World War II. Egyptian officers, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew King Farouk in 1952, blaming him for the poor showing in the war against Israel when the latter declared its independence. Nasser then became the great spokesperson for Arab socialism throughout the region, but Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel tarnished his record. He died in 1970, and was succeeded by another of the officers, Anwar Sadat, the following year. Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1979, and was assassinated by Islamists two years later. Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt with his National Democratic Party from that time until his resignation in February 2011. The rapidly growing population on limited arable land has proved a significant economic challenge for the government.

Egypt has arguably been the most important country in the development of Islamic thought. Al Azhar University has traditionally exercised pride of place in training Sunni legal scholars for the entire world. Following the shock of Napoleon’s conquest, 1798-1801, Cairo became the locus for Muslims from many nations seeking to craft a response to the West, for example, the Persian Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-97), the Egyptian Mohammed Abduh (1849-1905), and the Syrian Rahjid Rida (1865-1935). In 1928 the Egyptian school teacher Hassan al-Banna (1906-49) founded the Muslim Brotherhood, which quickly developed into a mass movement with a network of mosques, schools, and other institution, thus demonstrating that Islam could encompass every aspect of the economic, political, and cultural life of the believer. In this context, jihad denoted both the struggle to drive out Western influence and the striving for economic and social development. The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in 1954 when it tried to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser, but it currently constitutes the most significant opposition to the government. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, Muslim Brotherhood members running as independents won 88 of the 454 seats. Their slogan “Islam is the solution” meant many things to many people, and analysts argued about whether the votes were pro-Brotherhood or anti-government. Mubarak strongly attacked legitimate secular candidates such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, imprisoned in 2000, and Ayman Nour, imprisoned in 2005. With Mubarak's fall in February 2011, the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces took over and politics became more fragmented, with the Muslim Brotherhood having the strongest institutional base. Gradually the Brotherhood attained more power, with the second most powerful groups being Salafists to their right.

In October 2011, many Coptic Christians protesting the destruction of a church were killed. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi defeated Ahmed Shafiq for president in the runoff of June 2012. In November 2012 hundreds   of thousands of protestors demonstrated against Morsi after he gave himself significant new powers. The tension between Morsi and others has damaged both political consensus and economic development. See the articles for the politics of the Arab Spring and of Muslim-Coptic relations.

Hanson (2006) discusses “The Arab Islamic Heartland: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Egypt” (pp. 235-42); “Sunni Politics in North Africa: The Autocratic State and Islamic Opposition in the Maghrib” (pp. 242-45); and “The Politics of Islam as a World Civilization” (pp. 252-59).

2. A Short Introductory Course to Religion and Politics in Egypt

Baker presents the state of religion and politics at the end of the 1980s. Ambrust explores the connection between social experimentation and media representation. Albright presents her analysis of Egypt and Mubarak from the perspective of an ex-Secretary of State. See articles for recent changes. Brown gives a fine, superbly documented, analysis of the current state of the Egyptian argument over shari'a.

Baker, Raymond William, “Afraid for Islam: Egypt’s Muslim Centrists between Pharaohs and Fundamentalists,” in Daedalus 120 (Summer 1991): 41-68.

Armbrust, Walter, “Bourgeois Leisure and Egyptian Media Fantasies,” in Eickelman, Dale F., and Anderson, Jon W., eds. New Media in the Muslim World, 2nd ed. (Bloomington, IN.: Indiana University Press, 2003).

Albright, Madeleine, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 223-26.

Brown, Nathan J., "Debating the Islamic Shari'a in 21st-Century Egypt," The Review of Faith & International Affairs (Winter 2012): 9-17.

3. Other Key Resource Materials for Religion and Politics in Egypt

Abu-Nimer, Mohammed, Khoury, Amal I., and Welty, Emily. Unity in Diversity: Interfaith Dialogue in the Middle East. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute for Peace, 2007. Basic concepts and the cases of Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan.

“Hasan Hanafi: the Classic Intellectual,” in Esposito, John L., and Voll, John O. Makers of Contemporary Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 68-90.

4. Recent News Articles (a. Politics; b. Religion and Politics in Society; c. Religion):

a. Politics
“Mubarak’s Victory Orderly, but Opposition Is Still Angry,” New York Times, September 10, 2005. Hosni Mubarak, 77, of National Democratic Party wins fifth six-year term with 88.5% of vote, but only 23% voting. Ayman Nour of Tomorrow Party second with 7.3%.

“Mubarak Foe, Bravado Gone, Feels Smeared,” New York Times, October 19, 2005. Nour imprisoned, causing Secretary of State Rice to cancel trip. Nour loses his seat in the November parliamentary elections, and was sentenced to five years at hard labor in December for alleged forgery of an election document in 2004.

“Democracy in Egypt Faces 2 Tests Today,” New York Times, May 18, 2006. Court issues over Ayman Nour and judicial independence.

“War News From Lebanon Gives Egyptians a Mirror Of Their Own Desperation,” New York Times, August 6, 2006. Lebanon makes Egyptians think of own political issues.

“Egypt, Under Stress, Sees U.S. as Pain and Remedy,” New York Times, October 22, 2006. Egyptian political problems and need for a solution to Palestinian question.

"Mubarak's Son Proposes Nuclear Program," New York Times, September 20, 2006. Gamal Mubarak positioning himself and the question of succession to his father.

"Arrests in Egypt Point Toward a Crackdown," New York Times, June 15, 2007. Arrest of Abdellatif Muhammad Said and summary of recent political crackdown. His cousin Amr Tharwat attended a democracy conference in Doha and worked for democracy advocate Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Others in article defend the government.

"An Unanswered Question: Who Follows Mubarak?" New York Times, November 1, 2007. General assembly of ruling National Democratic Party. Mubarak's son Gamal has party stature, but not military. Longtime Chief of Intelligence Omar Suleiman has military stature, not party. Editor who raised health issues of president threatened by jail. Chief religious official issued fatwa saying journalists who spread such rumors should receive 80 lashes. Complications for U.S. foreign policy, don't want to lose influence as Saudis did in Lebanon when Rafik Hariri assassinated.

"With Diplomatic Touch, an Outsider Challenges the Grip of Egypt's Ruling Party," New York Times, March 1, 2010. Analysis of the challenge of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. See also September 8, 2010, ElBaradei calls for boycott of fall parliamentary elections.

"Egypt Votes Amid Strife and Charges of Fraud," New York Times, November 29, 2010. The last Mubarak elections full of fraud and pressure against the Muslim Brotherhood voters.

"Egypt Army Sets 6-Month Blueprint, but Future Role in Uncertain," New York Times, February 15, 2011. Supreme Military Council, led Field Marshall Tantawi, acts after Mubarak out on February 11.

"Egypt's Voters Approve Constituional Changes for Quick Elections," New York Times, March 21, 2011. 77 percent approval for relatively quick elections. Main supporters were better organized Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of National Democratic Party, with strong support coming from rural areas. Opponents were mostly the young and liberal leaders like El-Baradei and Amr Moussa, who have yet to build political organizations. Opposition came disproportionately from Alexandria and Cairo. Muslim Brotherhood argued that approval was necessary to keep Egypt an Islamic state.

"Egyptian Vote Forces Islamists to Confront Their Divide Over Rule by Religion," New York Times, December 4, 2011. Salafists criticism of Muslim Brotherhood as too lenient.

"Islamists Win 70% of Seats in the Egyptian Parliament," New York Times, January 22, 2012. Muslim Brotherhood wins 47% of seats, Salafists 25%. The liberal Wafd party came in third, and the Egyptian Bloc (business friendly and Coptic) ranked fourth.

"Egyptians Vote in Rare Chance to Pick Leader," New York Times, May 24, 2012. The first round of presidential elections among Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, more liberal former Brotherhood Abel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Mubarak's last prime minister Ahmed Shafik, a former air force general, and Amr Moussa, a secular-minded former foreign minister.

"Blow to Egypt Transition as Court Dissolves Parliament," New York Times, June 15, 2012. Islamists facing pressure from Old Elites in judiciary.

"Deadly Riots Erupt Across Egypt on Anniversary of Revolution," New York Times, January 26, 2013. Tens of thousands of protestors fill Tahrir Square to protest government on second anniversary of Egyptian Arab Spring, call for unity government.

"Rivals Across Egypt's Political Spectrum Hold Rare Meeting, Urging Dialogue," New York Times, February 1, 2013. Under chairmanship of country's leading Islamic scholar,  Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb of Al Azhar.

b. Religion and Politics in Society

“No Joke: Egyptian Comedy Promotes Peace With Israel,” New York Times, September 20, 2005. Box office hit, “The Embassy Is in the Building,” by director Amro Arafa and famous comic actor ‘Adel Imam.

“Egyptian Police Guard Coptic Church Attacked by Muslims,” New York Times, October 23, 2005. Three die in incident over Christian play, acted once two years ago, which DVD was supposedly distributed. Suspicion over link to parliamentary elections.

“Religion Emerges as Force in Egypt Politics,” New York Times, November 9, 2005. Role of religion and “rules of the game” in parliamentary election.

“Under Duress, Egypt’s Islamist Party Still Surges at Polls,” New York Times, November 28, 2005. Success of Muslim Brotherhood.
“Will Politics Tame Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?” New York Times, December 8, 2005. Long history and analysis of Muslim Brotherhood.

“Egyptian Leader of Muslim Group Calls Holocaust A Zionist Myth,” New York Times, December 23, 2005. Supreme Guide of Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Mehdi Akef, echoes Iranian president Ahmadinejad. Akef retracts two days later. Muslim Brotherhood members running as independents had just won 88 of 454 seats in parliament.

"In Egypt, A New Battle Over the Veil," New York Times, January 28, 2007. The significance of the issue in battle for hearts and minds between government and Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt is becoming more religious culturally.

"Egyptian Court Allows Return to Christianity," New York Times, February 11, 2008. Egypt's highest civil court, reversing a lower court decision, allowed 12 Christians who had converted to Islam to return to Coptic Christianity. The Coptic Orthodox Church does not allow divorce while Islam does, so some Coptic men who had converted for this reason were formally allowed to return to their original faith, but recently this has become more difficult. Last month the same high court ruled against a Muslim convert to Christianity having access to official papers conforming to the new religion. On January 29, the Court of Administrative Justice prohibited the government from withholding official documents from Baha'is, forcing them to register as Christians, Muslims, or Jews. 

"Stifled, Egypt's Young Turn to Islamic Fervor," New York Times, February 17, 2008. Report on young people (60% of region's population under 25) unemployed, with post-secondary education, and unable to afford marriage. Frustration results in a turn toward conservative Islam after the failure of Arabism, socialism, and nationalism. In 1986, there was one mosque for every 6,031 Egyptians. Now it is one mosque for every 745 people, with the population nearly doubled. Governments have repositioned themselves as defenders of Islamic values, and large pool of possible recruits for Islamic extemists. 

"In Egypt, Clashes Tied to Religion Are Officially Anything but That," New York Times, February 1, 2010. Government response to incident in which Muslims opened fire on Coptic Christmas Eve celebrations, seven killed. Religion is never admitted as a reason.

"Policy Contortions Conceal a Shared Religious Heritage Behind a Curtain," New York Times, March 22, 2010. Quiet ceremony dedicating restoration of synangogue of Maimonides illustrates the problem of needing to work with Israel on certain issues amidst public antipathy. No appetite for normalization, but where draw the line?

"Fatal Bomb Hits Church in Egypt," New York Times, January 2, 2011. 21 killed and over 100 wounded in bombing of Alexandria church. This began a series of incidents all spring exacerbated by the lack of order. Mubarak government blamed on outside aggitators. Muslim leaders mostly condemn these incidents, but strong tension remains.

"Among the Brotherhood," New York Times Magazine, February 13, 2011. Story of arrest of Brotherhood leader Sobhi Saleh among the chaos of the revolution. Group finally rescued among chaos of January 28.

"After Lengthy Exile, Sunni Cleric Adds Voice in Shaping of Europe," New York Times, February 19, 2011. Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who fled the country in 1961, addresses over one million people in Tahrir Square. He calls for pluralistic democracy and honor for "the martyrs" of both Muslim and Coptic faiths.

"Historic Opportunity, Say Coptic Leaders," America, March 7, 2011. (Catholic) Cardinal Antonios Naguib, Patriarch of Alexandria, encourages Christians to participate in elections.

"Copts Confront New Reality," America, March 28, 2011. Pope Shenouda III and Coptic leaders analyze changing situation, wanting democracy but fearing Islamic persecution.

"Egypt's Christians Fear Violence as Changes Embolden Islamists," New York Times, May 31, 2011. Fine analysis of law and Muslim-Christian tensions. What does Constitutional provision that Egypt derives its law from Islam mean? There are stricter regulations for building churches than mosques, fostering Christian dissemination. Both communites follow religion in personal status law, but Muslims can divorce easier than Copts, so some Copts convert to divorce and then reconvert. The popular narrative in most riots has to do with, mostly falsely, a Muslim being forced by Christians to convert. But Muslim Brotherhood leaders like Essam el-Erian and liberals like El-Baradei have called to freedom to worship and other human rights.

"Coptic Pope's Death Adds to Fears in Egypt's Time of Transition," New York Times, March 21, 2012. Pope Shenouda dies. Analysis of his political acumen.

"A Vague Role for Religion in Egyptian Draft Constitution," New York Times, November 10, 2012.

"Church Official Blames Morsi for Death and Disorder," America (February 18, 2013): 6-7. Rev. Antoine Rafic Greiche, spokesman for Catholic bishops' conference of Egypt, blamed the president for lack of security and for pushing through the Constitution in face of bitter opposition. Bishop Kyrillos Williajm, administrator of the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria, warned that the "religious orientation of this constitution prepares the way for an Islamic caliphate."

c. Religion

“Ever Since A.D. 270, the Need to Get Away From It All,” New York Times, September 28, 2005. Discovery of fourth-century cells in St. Anthony’s monastery since cell where he began Christian monastic life. Current Coptic practice.

"A Compass That Can Clash With Modern Life," New York Times, June 12, 2007. Report on functioning of fatwa system in Egypt, for example, in Fatwa Committee at Al Azhar University.

"Fashion and Faith Meet, on the Foreheads of the Pious," New York Times, December 18, 2007. As Islamic identity becomes much more important to Egyptians, men's zebibah, a dark callued bump on forehead from frequent prayer, signals piety. Article ties Egyptian and Middle Eastern religious revival to 24-hour religious programming, economic stagnation, and resentment of the West. Long beards, however, seem to hurt in seeking employment. 

 List of all Countries

March 5, 2013.