All the Dictator’s Sheikhs

How Sisi co-opted Egypt’s religious institutions for political gain.

Evening Prayers Al-Azhar
Muslim worshippers pray while maintaining social distancing at Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, during Ramadan, on May 17. SAMER ABDALLAH/AFP via Getty Images

On June 20, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised military intervention in Libya if forces supporting the U.N.-backed government tried to retake the strategic city of Sirte. While Sisi has yet to follow through on his threat, he’ll have backing from a higher power if he does so. Two days after Sisi’s announcement, Egypt’s top official religious institutions offered resounding endorsements. Al-Azhar, one of the most respected religious institutions in the Sunni Muslim world, issued a statement supporting Sisi’s political stance on Libya. Dar al-Iftaa—Egypt’s chief Islamic authority—went a step further, urging Egyptians to back Sisi’s threats and saying any opposition would be considered haram, or forbidden under Islamic law. In a Twitter thread, Dar al-Iftaa told its 320,000 followers that Egyptians had a religious duty toward their leadership, whom they should obey and support otherwise they “don’t deserve the honor of belonging to the country.”

Such commentary may seem out of place for a body chiefly concerned with Islamic law. But in the six years since Sisi came to power, Egypt’s top religious institutions and figures have grown increasingly embroiled in secular affairs. Sisi grabbed power after a military coup in July 2013 against President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically and freely elected president, whose nascent party was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. He ran on an anti-Islamist platform, claiming that religion and politics should not be mixed. However, since he took office, Sisi has been utilizing religion to advance his political agenda and to justify his repressive and populist policies.

It is only under Sisi that the body has been turned into a religious propaganda tool frequently used to sanction the leader’s political agenda. Religion is a key component of Egyptians’ daily life and the state controls the religious sphere. Egypt’s three main religious institutions—Al-Azhar, Dar al-Iftaa, and the Ministry of Religious Endowments—are regulated, administrated, and run by the state. As a president, Sisi has the power to hire senior sheikhs and imams, determine religious institutions’ budgets, and oversee their activities. Since it was founded in 1895, Dar al-Iftaa has supported Egypt’s political regimes and leaders with few exceptions. But it is only under Sisi that the body has been turned into a religious propaganda tool frequently used to sanction the leader’s political agenda.

Over the past six years, Dar al-Iftaa has issued numerous statements and fatwas that support or legitimize Sisi’s internal and external policies. Fatwas are supposed to cover primarily religious matters, but about 81 of the 224 statements issued this year thus far have been related to political issues. These range from supporting Sisi’s government’s procedures to fight COVID-19, to praising Egypt’s army campaign against radicals in Sinai, to attacking Islamists and Turkey.

Dar al-Iftaa’s sheikhs and imams have also offered their voices in support of Sisi in a manner unprecedented in the institution’s history. The former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, as well as the current Mufti, Sheikh Shawki Allam, are outspoken supporters of the president’s policies—particularly his campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, Sisi’s main political foe. On the seventh anniversary of the July 2013 coup, Allam attacked the Muslim Brotherhood and praised Sisi for getting rid of them. He said he considered the coup a “prophetic miracle.” Gomaa, meanwhile, has vehemently criticized the Muslim Brotherhood, employing religious reasoning to justify its repression. In a leaked video from early August 2013, Gomaa told an audience of Egyptian military and police officers (among them Sisi, who at that time was the defense minister) that they should be ruthless in their response to the Muslim Brotherhood. “Shoot them in the heart,” he said. “Blessed are those who kill them, and those who are killed by them. … We must cleanse our Egypt from these riffraff. … They shame us. … They stink. This is how God has created them. They are hypocrites and seceders.” A few days later, on Aug. 14, 2013, Egypt’s military and police brutally slaughtered about 800 pro-Morsi protesters in broad daylight.

To be sure, religious institutions and clerics endorsing authoritarian regimes are hardly unique in the Middle East. Throughout history and across faiths, despotic leaders have used religion for political ends. From the Crusades to the expansion of Muslim empires, religious bodies offered justification for conquests, invasions, and power grabs. Even in established democracies, leaders have relied on religious sentiment to mobilize and galvanize their constituency. (Look at how U.S. President Donald Trump aimed to galvanize his evangelical Christian followers by holding up a Bible outside the St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington while speaking of the need to respond violently to anti-racism protesters.)

But in Egypt, Sisi has used the religious institutions to justify his repressive policies in a manner unprecedented in the country—causing no small amount of harm to the institutions themselves. If the sheikhs can secure Sisi their support in the short term, they will see their image, influence, and credibility eroded in Egypt and beyond for decades.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an associate professor of political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Twitter: @Khalilalanani