Country Profile


Situation Report

In the wake of the 2011 uprising that ousted long-time Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has faced political instability, characterised by frequent protests and often violent clashes between protesters and government forces. Although Egypt's current conflict may not be solely about religion, religion is an issue of major importance in Egypt. The majority of Egypt's population is Muslim, with a minority of Coptic Christians that make up roughly 10 percent of the population (Accessed 24 June 2014). The vast majority of Egyptians, regardless of their political stance, are personally pious. Indeed, the current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has intentionally cast himself as a "defender of Islam" and spoken of his vision for the future of Islam in Egypt (Accessed 27 June 2014). Rather than being a battle between different religious ideologies, the religious element of the current Egyptian struggle is primarily political, deciding the role and scope of religion in the government.

“Secularism” versus Islamism

Even before the 2011 uprising, the struggle between secularism and Islamism was epitomised in the ongoing conflict between the military government and the Muslim Brotherhood, a social movement that became politicised and at times radical. In 1952, a group of junior military officers known as the Free Officers' Movement overthrew the monarchy of King Farouk, ended the British occupation of Egypt and established a republic. For the subsequent sixty years, Egypt was ruled successively by military men, namely Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak. Over this time period, the government has almost always had a contentious relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition movement.

As a banned organisation the Brotherhood was increasingly radical and violent.

Although the Brotherhood initially supported the 1952 coup, Nasser did not include the group in his government; their exclusion from power allowed the Brotherhood to claim that it now opposed the secularist direction of the government under the Free Officers. Following an assassination attempt against Nasser, the organisation was outlawed in 1954. As a banned organisation, the Brotherhood became increasingly radical and subsequently violent, leading in turn to more arrests, imprisonments and executions. A number of Brotherhood members fled to nearby Saudi Arabia. It was the Egyptian military who imprisoned Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb, eventually hanging him in 1966. Qutb's writings from prison have directly influenced the ideology of other, more radical groups, such as Tanzim al-Jihad, of which Ayman al-Zawahiri was a one-time member. The Brotherhood largely remained an underground organisation throughout the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak presidencies—though their violent tendencies lessened.

It is critical to note that this conflict between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be characterised as one between "better" Muslims and less pious Muslims; to do so would be to fall into the Brotherhood's trap. The Brotherhood sought to establish a political system with a different role for their statist interpretation of Islam and accused the government of jahiliyya, pre-Islamic ignorance, but these presidents — Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak — were all mainstream Sunni Muslims, who were seen praying at al-Azhar and were in line with the traditional Islam of most Egyptians. Therefore, this was not a conflict between two sects or between Muslims and jahiliyya, but an attempt by the Brotherhood to gain power for its own political ideology.


The Muslim Brotherhood in the Public Sphere

The 2011 uprising, despite the Brotherhood's initial distance from it, brought with it a change in the Brotherhood's ability to operate in public. They emerged into the open, rather than operating underground. They created a political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and ran a presidential candidate, despite promising early in the post-Mubarak period not to field a candidate. In the lead-up to elections, the Brotherhood's policy proposals were primarily political and economic not religious. But the tone and tenor of their Islamist activism caused concern among the secular (but pious) political class.

Only months after the narrow electoral victory of the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian public began to grow dissatisfied with his government. There had been high revolutionary expectations (which Morsi had played to in the election campaign with promises to provide food, clean the streets, clear the traffic and restore security within his first 100 days), and correspondingly low delivery. In September 2012, Egypt's high court — a body fostered by the previous Mubarak government and filled with the mostly anti-Brotherhood Egyptian upper classes — dissolved the first democratically elected parliament, which was predominantly Islamist. Furthermore, the judiciary worked to repeal progress on the constitution writing process. Granted, the Constituent Assembly, the body tasked with writing the constitution, was struggling; large number of its non-Islamist members resigned their seats in protest of the Brotherhood's unwillingness to compromise. Morsi's advisers believed that the judiciary intended to nullify the presidential office itself and the Morsi regime responded by granting the executive extra-constitutional powers, further enraging the public in opposition.

This tension between the presidency and the judiciary, reflected in a public opinion divided between Islamists and secularists, continued for the duration of Morsi's presidency and culminated in a military-backed coup d'état in July 2013. Supporters of the coup d'état included not only the military, judiciary and revolutionary secularists, but also the Coptic Christian Pope, the prestigious al-Azhar seminary and the Salafi Hizb al-Nour party. The presence of the latter two Muslim religious organisations indicates again that this conflict is not solely religious in nature, but rather a political and identity based conflict against the Brotherhood and its use of religion. In the months leading up to the coup, the Brotherhood was often accused of tigarat ad-din, literally "trading on religion" or the use of religion for political purposes.

Before the coup, the Brotherhood was accused of "trading religion".

A secular grassroots organisation called Tamarrod, meaning "rebellion," planned a massive street protest for June 30, 2013, with the intent of overthrowing the Morsi government. On July 1, the military, led by then-General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, issued a 48-hour ultimatum for the government, stating that if the Egyptian people's demands were not met, they would intervene. On July 3, the military placed President Morsi under house arrest and arrested many of his advisers, ministers and Muslim Brotherhood leaders, taking control of the government in a coup. Following President Morsi's removal, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood government orchestrated a sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square that lasted through July and the first half of August. On August 15, the military sought to end the protests and clear the square; the resulting clashes between protesters and security forces left approximately 1,000 dead (Accessed 27 June 2014). Those aligned with these protesters have adopted a four-fingered gesture — rabaa means "four" in Arabic — to support and commemorate those killed in the sit-in.

Since August 2013, a conflict has emerged between those who support ousted President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood and those that oppose them in favour of the military-backed interim government (until June 2014) or the recently elected President Sisi. Violent clashes between protesters and security forces erupt regularly, both in public squares and on university campuses. The government has again outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and identified it as a terrorist organisation, arresting over 10,000 Brotherhood members and supporters. Former President Morsi is currently in prison and on trial and in March 2014 hundreds of Brotherhood members, including Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie, were sentenced to death. It appears that the government's crackdown against the Brotherhood will continue, with Sisi announcing in May 2014 that under his rule, the Muslim Brotherhood "will not exist (Accessed 27 June 2014)." In November 2014, President Sisi announced that parliamentary elections would be held by the end of March 2015, the FJP remains banned and will not take part (Accessed 22 January 2015).

Why "Legitimacy" Matters

The Sisi government has the support of the military, judiciary, the Coptic Christian leadership and Hizb al-Nour, the Salafi party; while the Muslim Brotherhood and a handful of more radical jihadi groups oppose the new government. Yet despite their lack of institutional support, the Muslim Brotherhood continues to argue that it alone has the "legitimacy" to lead the Egyptian government, since President Morsi won the country's first free and fair presidential election. This argument has been repeated since the July 2013 coup, with Morsi delivering a speech during the military's 48-hour ultimatum in which he used the word "legitimacy" 56 times (Accessed 27 June 2014).

This point of legitimacy has religious implications too. If the Muslim Brotherhood continues to argue that the president is indeed illegitimate, the implication to violent Islamists is that an illegitimate ruler can be removed from power by force. Using the "illegitimacy" of governments as a basis for attacks is common with jihadis around the world, who argue that they are justified in removing governments and replacing them with a more pious (in their eyes) regime.

Such jihadi groups have begun to appear in Egypt since President Morsi's deposal, many of whom are based in the Sinai Peninsula but conduct attacks against military or police targets in both the Sinai and in Cairo. In January 2014, four bomb blasts struck Cairo, destroying the police headquarters. The jihadi group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM) claimed responsibility for all these attacks. In February 2014, an explosion, also claimed by ABM, killed three tourists and a bus driver on a tourist bus in the Sinai Peninsula. Attacks by ABM intensified during 2014, with the group responsible for co-ordinated attacks on Egyptian army positions in the Sinai which killed at least 33 soldiers on 24 October 2014 (Accessed 22 January 2015).

Role of Coptic Christians

Muslim protestors attacked mourners, trapping many inside the church.

Although the dominant religious element of the current conflict in Egypt is between the religiously-neutral government and the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, it is critical to note the role of Coptic Christians, Egypt's largest religious minority. Relations between the government and the Coptic Christian community have been strained since the 1970s and Copts often face discrimination in the building of their churches, in their occupations and even in marriage. The period in January and February 2011, while protests against the Mubarak regime were ongoing, signaled a possible improvement in these tensions, as Muslims and Christians prayed together in Tahrir Square. However, the election of President Morsi was a source of tension within the Coptic community, with many fearing even more intense discrimination under the Muslim Brotherhood authority than in the past. The Muslim Brotherhood did little to assuage this fear during Morsi's presidency; though Egypt's Christian community celebrated the enthronement of a new Coptic pope during Morsi's year in power, the president did not attend the celebration. Furthermore, when questioned on rising Christian emigration, he denied the phenomenon. While the Coptic community at large tends to support secular political movements and their leadership has publicly supported the July 2013 coup and the resulting government, they are seen by some Egyptians to be exceedingly anti-Islamist. Thus, Coptic churches are often the targets of attacks by Brotherhood or Islamist supporters. In April 2013, five Copts and one Muslim were killed in clashes outside Cairo; at the Coptic funeral for those five in St. Mark's Cathedral in Abbasiya, Cairo, Muslim protesters attacked mourners, trapping many of them inside the church.

Key Players: Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan al-Banna as a pan-Islamic social and proselytising movement for a more state-centered Islam in 1928. In its early years, the Brotherhood's activities were purely social, including preaching Islam, teaching and providing medical care for the poor. As the movement's influence grew, they began to oppose the British occupation actively and the organisation is blamed for many of the violent killings that took place during this period. Between the founding of the Egyptian republic in 1952 and the 2011 uprising, the Brotherhood has been almost continually repressed, with its members facing arrest and execution, often leading to the increasing radicalisation of the group and creating violent offshoots. There was some ease in tensions between the government and the Brotherhood following Anwar Sadat's rise to power in 1970, as Sadat attempted to establish peace by gradually releasing members from prison. However, many of those imprisoned had become more radical while in jail and a number of jihadi splinter groups rose in prominence during the 1970s. President Hosni Mubarak, who came to power after Sadat's assassination by members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a jihadi group, in 1981, again cracked down against radical Islamists, but reached out to the moderate elements in the organisation.

Contrary to the common assumption, not all Salafis are Jihadi.

In the 2011 uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood eventually joined in the protests against then-President Hosni Mubarak and, following his deposal, emerged from their status as an underground organisation into the open. The FJP, their newly formed political party, fielded candidates for the parliamentary and presidential elections. This decision to politicise the organisation was not unanimous, with high-ranking members such as Mohammed Badie, Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, the organisation's top leader, opposing the move. The Brotherhood's level of organisation, rare for civil society groups in Egypt at the time, made them a strong force in elections and led much of the population to fear they would take control. Although they promised not to participate in the presidential election, they did and were successful, though narrowly — Morsi won only 51.7 percent of the vote and defeated his opponent by only 900,000 votes (Accessed 30 June 2014). Although Mohammed Morsi was elected president, another Brotherhood leader, Khairat al-Shater, is considered to be the true political leader of the Brotherhood. Badie, Morsi and Shater are all currently in prison.

Key Players: Hizb al-Nour

Hizb al-Nour is Egypt's largest Salafi political party, garnering 24% of seats in the November 2011 parliamentary elections. Salafis are the most hardline Islamists, interpreting the Quran more literally than most Muslims and aiming to draw this literalism into law and governance. Contrary to a common assumption, not all Salafis are jihadi. For example, some of the strongest voices condemning Hamas suicide bombings have been Saudi Salafi clerics. In Egypt, Hizb al-Nour has been an active force in politics since the 2011 revolution, emerging from the Salafi Call movement which prior to the revolution shunned political activism. Although they are more conservative than the Brotherhood, they have not always fallen in with the Freedom and Justice Party, but rather have played the political game to side with the dominant party. In this vein, the party sided with the military against the Brotherhood in the July 2013 coup, citing a list of genuine grievances against President Morsi. The group is currently led by Younis Makhioun.

Key Players: Al-Azhar University

Al-Azhar University was founded in 972 AD and serves as a center of Islamic learning not just for Egypt, but for the greater Middle East. In 1961, the institution was restructured and their centuries-old endowment was seized by the socialist government of Nasser. This placed control of the seminary in the hands of the government, who used al-Azhar to counter the pull of Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2012, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the interim government that ruled Egypt between Mubarak's deposal and Morsi's election, granted al-Azhar quasi-independent status.

From the institution's perspective, it has struggled over the past fifty years to maintain its autonomy while simultaneously holding a strong influence over Egyptian religious and social life. Al-Azhar is generally seen as more scholarly, less political and its leaders viewed the Brotherhood as a political institution. However, the Grand Sheikh, Ahmed al-Tayeb, stepped into the political fray in July 2013, when he publicly supported the military overthrow of Mohammed Morsi.

Al-Azhar's support for the military government of President Sisi frustrates the claim of some Brotherhood members that the government's crackdown against them is an anti-Muslim movement. As one of the oldest and most respected centers of Islamic thought internationally, the word of the seminary and its Grand Sheikh cannot be brushed aside. For example, the death sentences doled out to Muslim Brotherhood members must be confirmed by the Grand Mufti before they can take place, thus providing that judicial decision and the government with some religious legitimacy.

Key Players: Ansar Beit al-Maqdis

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM), a militant Islamist group, emerged shortly after the January 2011 uprising with the aim of conducting attacks against Israeli and tourist targets in the Sinai Peninsula. However, since the ousting of President Morsi in July 2013, they have engaged in attacks in Cairo against military, police and government targets, in addition to their campaign in the Sinai, which now includes both Israeli and military regime targets. Among ABM's most high-profile attacks are the attempted assassination of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim in September 2013, a series of bombings in downtown Cairo in January 2014, and coordinated attacks on military bases in the Sinai in October 2014. Egypt, the United States and the United Kingdom all designated ABM as a terrorist organisation in April 2014. On 9 November 2014, the group announced its declaration of allegiance to ISIS, though the announcement brought hints of division in jihadi ranks

Key Players: Egyptian Military

The military is a source of great pride among Egyptians, with compulsory service for a large portion of society. As noted above, the presidency for the vast majority of Egypt's history as a republic has been held by individuals with military backgrounds. Additionally, the military controls vast portions of the Egyptian economy, with estimates ranging from 15 to 40 percent (Accessed 30 June 2014).

Public sentiment toward the military has swung widely since the 2011 uprising. Although one of the initial demands of the January 2011 protests was the end of military trials for civilians, public opinion embraced the military in February 2011, when the military leadership refused to fire on civilians in Tahrir Square as ordered. In the period immediately following the overthrow of President Mubarak, the military took control of the country as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the public extolled the military's virtue, commonly saying, "the people and the army are one hand." Yet during the waiting period before Egypt's 2012 elections, the public grew frustrated with the military. By the July 2013 ousting of President Morsi, the people again were supportive of the military, claiming that their actions in removing Morsi were merely following the wishes of the masses. Again, however, it is clear that public support for the military is shrinking: a May 2014 poll by the Pew Research Center state that 56 percent of the Egyptian population views the military's influence on the country as positive, as compared to May 2013, when 73 percent viewed military influence as positive and 24 percent as negative (Accessed 30 June 2014).

Wider Aspects of the Conflict

Al-Jazeera presented many pieces critical of military rule.

Although this conflict is a struggle over Egyptian politics, there are a number of external players involved, both within the region and beyond. In the Middle East, a number of Gulf countries have chosen sides in the contest between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military government. From the time of Morsi's election, Qatar has acted as the primary Gulf backer of the Muslim Brotherhood government, donating $8 billion of aid and pledging $18 billion in total before the July 2013 coup. Support for the Brotherhood and resistance to the military government has also come from less official Qatari institutions: Al Jazeera continually published and presented pieces critical of the military government, leading to a crackdown on the news channel, police raids of their office and the sentencing of some of their staff to seven years in prison for "spreading false news" on 23 June 2014. Furthermore, Qatar-based cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a highly popular televangelist, continually spoke out in favour of the Brotherhood. Turkey also provided some support to the Morsi government. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait stood firmly in support of the July 2013 coup, the military-backed interim government and the new Sisi presidency. These three Gulf countries have acted as Egypt's underwriters since July 2013, pledging up to $20 billion in grants, loans and oil products. Following the election of President Sisi, Saudi King Abdullah made clear that he intended to continue funding Egypt and called on other countries in the region to assist as well. This Gulf support for the military regime is motivated by concern for those countries' own entrenched regimes; the success of participatory democracy inside Egypt could be considered a precedent for the future overthrow of monarchies in the Gulf.

Beyond the Middle East, the international community is divided on Egypt and the ouster of President Morsi. Prior to the 2011 uprising, relations between the United States and the Egyptian military had been positive, with substantial amounts of military aid flowing into Egypt and the Egyptian military maintaining a functional peace treaty with Israel. In the last hours of the Morsi government, the U.S. embassy attempted to broker an agreement between the military and the presidency (Accessed 30 June 2014) and this perceived support for the Brotherhood against the wishes of the Egyptian masses resulted in a wave of anti-Americanism in Egypt. U.S. military aid to Egypt has been highly contested since July 2013. Yet President Sisi's inauguration was attended by delegations from the United States, Europe and even Turkey. There is even debate over the use of the word "coup" to describe the military overthrow of President Morsi in July 2013. Overall, the international community — especially the West, with its principle to support democracy and the will of the people — does not have a clear, unified approach to the new Egyptian government.

Furthermore, the July 2013 coup against Morsi would not have been possible without the broad backing of the country's business elite, centered around Egypt's richest man, Naguib Sawiris. Sawiris poured funding into campaigns against Morsi, specifically the grassroots Tamarrod campaign, that allowed the movement to gain publicity and traction.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.

This report was first published on 27 June 2014 and last updated on 23 January 2015.