"Failure of a Revolution: The Military, Secular Intelligentsia and Religion in Egypt's Pseudo-Secular State," by Khaled Abou El Fadl

Failure of a Revolution: The Military, Secular Intelligentsia, and Religion in Egypt’s Pseudo-Secular State

By Khaled Abou El Fadl[1]




Since the age of colonialism, legitimacy has become an elastic word that is exploited to invent and repress history; to construct and de-construct identity; and to uphold and deny rights. Legitimacy is possessed by no one but claimed by everyone, and it is enforced only through sheer power. In the absence of a transparent and accountable civil process, those who believe that they are the de facto possessors of legitimacy massacre in cold blood, torture, maim and commit every possible offense in the name of defending the existing legitimacy.


The revolution of January 25, 2011 promised a complete paradigm shift in the way Egyptians think about political legitimacy. The revolution created a hope, which now feels like a passing dream, that Egyptians could learn the lesson taught by so many tragedies in human history. Quite simply, this lesson is that sovereignty belongs to the citizenry, and that the only source of legitimacy is the integrity and sanctity of the democratic process. No group and no person, whatever the imagined urgency or ultimate wisdom, has the right to short change or overrule the process.


There are two very memorable images of the Egyptian revolution and its aftermath, the first occurring at the beginning of the revolution in 2011 and the second occurring shortly after the military coup of July 2013. These two images are similar in content, but the discourses surrounding them are very different and rather abruptly show the lost hope of creating a civil society and the failure of the Egyptian revolution. No one forgets the images of the Egyptian revolution of hundreds of people lined up for prayer in Tahrir Square. Hundreds in prayer endured assaults of hot gushing water and tear gas by riot police. The public outcry of this assault on peaceful protesters was widespread. Those who are considered Islamists, secularists, and liberals joined together in condemning the horrific violence of the Ministry of Interior that was unleashed onto the peaceful protesters in prayer. After the Egyptian military coup on July 3, 2013, which ousted elected President Mohammad Morsi from his position, there is another image that will be forever imbedded in my mind. On August 14, 2013 riot police backed by military armored vehicles raided the peaceful pro-Morsi protesters at Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, leaving well over 500 people dead and over 4,000 wounded (Huffington Post 2013). The discourse surrounding this dark event in Egypt’s history was not one of a united voice against oppression and violence, but rather many Egyptian ‘liberals’ and secularists supported the violent force used against Morsi supporters. Egypt’s intelligentsia have legitimised this violence by making claims that Egypt is in a ‘state of war’ and that anyone who supports the Muslim Brotherhood and are against the military government are ‘terrorists and fascists’ (Kingsley 2013; Ramadan, 2013; Al-Shamsy 2013). It is in this context that we currently find Egypt in—stuck in the colonial cliental paradigm.


In the first few months of the Egyptian revolution Islam, and more particularly Shari‘a, which embodies a set of values and normative commitments, played an important and positive role in fueling and engineering the revolution. This does not mean that there were calls for an implementation of positivistic legal determinations of Shari‘a law, or that there were calls for a theocratic state. The display of religious symbolism and the role of Shari‘a principles during the revolution was, at least at first, an indicator that we needed a complete paradigm shift in the way we view religion and society and religion and politics. There was hope that religious oriented political parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and those who consider themselves liberals and seculars would be able to come together and work towards a common good and common goal of creating a legitimate political process, a civil society, that all could participate and flourish in. 


Sadly, the so-called Arab Spring only ended up demonstrating the extent to which what the political scientist Amos Perlmutter called the ‘Praetorian State,’ is so entrenched in Egypt to the point of dominating all public spaces and subordinating any competing space that could be occupied by the institution of civil society.  The Praetorian State means societies where the military has become part of the bureaucratic state and a substantial force in creating the middle class. It also signifies the embeddedness of the military in the administrative structure as well as the oppressive powers of the state. Egypt, and other countries in the Middle East, including those that some have termed subaltern nation states, fit within exactly that description—where the military is like an octopus that has its tentacles in practically all aspects of society (Perlmutter 1974).


In this chapter I will first discuss the role Islam and Shari‘a played in the Egyptian revolution in fueling the hopes of creating a civil society. Then, in contrast, I will show how all these idealistic ideas collapsed and instead we are left with the same paradigm that has existed in Egypt since colonialism, which is a cliental relationship between the military and the secular elite in state that controls and defines religion.




A.    The Social and Religious Ethos of Struggling for Liberty and Justice


The role played by Shari‘a in the Egyptian Revolution was conspicuous but also subtle and complex. But before addressing the dynamics directly relevant to the Shari‘a, it is necessary to analyze the multifaceted ways that Islam, in general, interacted with the Egyptian Revolution. For instance, one cannot fail to notice that the very tempo of the revolution was regulated by the Friday congregational prayers (jum‘a prayers), and so that the very developmental stages of the revolution were orchestrated around the weekly services. The protestors labeled Friday congregational prayers with powerful mobilizing designations such as ‘the Friday of wrath’ (jumu‘at al-ghadab), ‘the Friday of departure,’ (jumu’at al-raheel), and ‘the Friday of victory’ (jumu’at al-hasm). Far from being a formalistic process of labeling, these designations grew out of the very powerful normative dynamics of the congregational prayers in being vehicles for moral and social solidarity, collective aspirations, and mobilization. These congregational performances affirmed a sense of solidarity that transcended the disparate economic statuses and divergent educational and cultural backgrounds of the revolutionaries. Importantly, Friday sermons (khutba) delivered by dynamic figures, such as Sheikh Al-Mahallawi in Alexandria, played a critical role in sustaining and augmenting the momentum of the revolutionary zeal (Fayed and Awad, 2011). In the Friday sermons, Al-Mahallawi and other clerics exhorted people to persevere, endure, and to maintain the revolution until the  ‘fall of the despot’ (President Hosni Mubarak). Importantly, these calls for perseverance were powerfully reinforced by a profound sense of divine providence and destiny. The Egyptian Revolution was fueled by a widespread social and religious ethos of being on a holy mission and also a divinely sanctified struggle for liberty against injustice.


The revolutionary discourses of Egypt persistently invoked the compelling concept of jihad. Friday sermons repeatedly assured the revolutionaries that they were engaged in a jihad no less worthy or sanctified than struggling against foreign invaders or any other rarefied objective in the course of Egyptian history. Judging from the literature and discourses of the revolutionaries, the idea of being engaged in a jihad against injustice and for liberation from despotism and corruption became a central part of the ethos guiding the Egyptian Revolution. Interestingly, the ethos of the revolution as a jihad held sway not only among Muslims but also among Christian activists. This is in part explained by the very nature of the concept of jihad, which is quintessentially centered on the idea of just struggle, but also by the creative interpretive reconstructions taking place in the Egyptian context in particular.


The dogma of jihad gained further momentum and acquired a further transformative power through another Shari‘a-rooted dogma—the idea of shahada, or bearing witness through martyrdom. Rebels killed in the revolution are universally referred to as martyrs, but the same recognition is not afforded to those who lost their lives defending Mubarak’s regime. These, however, are not postmortem honorific designations bestowed after the fact upon the deceased. Doctrinally, martyrdom is part and parcel a moral status that grew out of and is corollary to the concept of jihad. For the most part, those who are considered martyrs first engage in a jihad and then are killed in the process. In other words, one first rises to the status of a mujahid (someone engaged in a jihad) before qualifying for the honored status of martyrdom (shahada) (Cook 2007: 31-44). Muslim clerics, often in the context of Friday sermons, or as discussed below through the issuance of legal responsa (fatawa), affirmed that those killed in the course of protesting against despotism, injustice, and corruption are martyrs as long as the mujahid limited his or her protests to peaceful means. The effective and powerful role that this package of Shari‘a concepts played in upholding some of the very basic concepts that sustained the Egyptian Revolution is potently reflected in the slogans and rallying cries repeated by the revolutionaries throughout Egypt. For example, the protestors incessantly yelled out ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greater), the oft-used rallying cry of jihad, which was very often accompanied by the pacifist battle-cry of ‘silmiyya, silmiyya’ (peacefully, peacefully), connoting the commitment of the rebels to peaceful means of protest—stubbornly yelled out every time the protestors were violently assaulted by government thugs or soldiers. And if the violent assaults resulted in deaths, or if the demonstrators mourned a fallen revolutionary, they yelled out ‘al-shahidu habibu Allah’ (martyrs are the closest or the most beloved to God).


B.   Liberal and Cultural Values as Expressions of Islamicity


Alongside religious performance and symbolism, demonstrators in various Egyptian cities engaged in numerous cultural festivities—dancing, singing, pop performances, comic skits, and poetry—activities that in a strictly puritanical or Wahhabi setting would not be linked with religiosity and would even be condemned as antithetical to the teachings of Islam (Abou El Fadl 2005: 156-61). Moreover, women participated in the Egyptian Revolution in substantial numbers, and men and women protested, worshipped, and celebrated together in mixed gender settings (Mohyeldin 2011). The free mixing of the sexes is deemed offensive and sinful by puritanical persuasions within Islam, but beyond the question of puritanical sensibilities, the gender dynamics and practices observed in the Tahrir Square and other urban centers in Egypt would also not have appealed to the more culturally conservative or traditional elements of Egyptian society. However, these gender practices, as is the case with the democratic values espoused by the revolutionaries, reflected the liberal cultural values that had come to inspire the rebels. Most importantly, these liberal values were not held by the pioneers and makers of the Egyptian Revolution in opposition to Islam or as a challenge to Islamic values. For the revolutionaries, these liberal values and the cultural practices were considered to be true and genuine expressions of Islamicity.


C.     The Marked Absence of Religious Absolutism


At the same time that there was widespread deployment of religious doctrines and symbolisms, the religiosity displayed by the revolutionaries was far from puritanical or absolutist. The revolutionaries assiduously avoided any suggestion of creating a religious state or a hegemonic and totalitarian system of government.  At the first Friday congregational services after Mubarak’s resignation, one of the first acts of the revolutionaries was to invite prominent religious authorities, such as Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi, who for decades had lived in exile because of Mubarak’s repression, to address tumultuously rejoicing masses of supporters.


But, at the same time, the Egyptian Revolution also portrayed a remarkably equanimical picture in which Christian prayers were held alongside Muslim prayers, and as a sign of national unity and solidarity, the Qur’an was raised side-by-side with the cross, and both Islamic and Christian clergy held unified religious services in the midst of the Tahrir Square. Perhaps most tellingly, the demonstrations that overtook all the major cities were distinctly devoid of any chants or placards proclaiming that sovereignty belongs only to God (al-hakimiyya li’llah), or that the Qur’an is the only legitimate constitution (al-quran dusturuna), or that Islam is the only solution (al-Islam huwa al-hall), all of which were the typical rallying cries of Islamic movements in the1970s and 1980s.


D.      Shari‘a and Shari‘a Law in the Egyptian Revolution


The Egyptian Revolution was not about the imposition of Shari‘a law. In the literature generated before and after the revolution, the call for an imposition of Shari‘a law or set of positive legal commandments is conspicuously absent. This literature places a great deal of emphasis on civil society, civic duties and rights, rule of law, limited and accountable government, social and political justice, and citizenship. Even the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the course of the revolution and to this day has not called for the imposition of Shari‘a law, but like many of the revolutionaries, has argued that the Shari‘a of Islam not only supports but mandates this revolution (Mursi 2011). We can better understand the intellectual context and system of thought from which this revolution emerged if we keep in mind that while a large number of moderate Islamists, such as Amr Khaled, Fahmi Huwaydi, Mohammad Umarah, and Selim Al-Awa supported or participated in the protests, puritanical Salafi and Wahhabi organizations boycotted the revolution. Among other things, the objection raised by puritanical groups and activists was that the revolution did not call for the imposition of Shari‘a law. Furthermore, Saudi jurists and Wahhabi activists issued legal proclamations appealing, albeit unsuccessfully, to God-fearing and pious Muslims to boycott the revolution. In these proclamations, Wahhabis contended that Shari‘a law prohibited demonstrations and also prohibited rebelling against a ruler who is unjust or despotic. The Saudi government also condemned the Egyptian Revolution, stating in no uncertain terms that it was contrary to Shari‘a law (Reuters 2011).


Partly in response to the Wahhabi position, the prominent Egyptian jurist Yusuf Al-Qaradawi spoke out in clear support of the revolution and called upon Egyptians to join it (Kirkpatrick, 2011). Qaradawi appealed to the principles of Shari‘a in arguing that there was a religious and moral obligation upon Muslims to support the revolution and to rebel against despotism, degradation, and injustice. Qaradawi’s position on the Egyptian Revolution was consistent with a position he had articulated several years earlier. A number of years before the revolution, in a television program titled ‘Shari‘a and Life’ (al-Shari‘a wa al-haya) broadcasted on Al-Jazeera, Qaradawi argued a proper understanding of Shari‘a would give precedence to a democratic system of governance over any system of government that would give effect to the technical positive commandments of the Islamic legal tradition. Qaradawi also argued that democracy, or a political system that respects human dignity, is more fundamental to the fulfillment of Shari‘a than the enforcement of a set of positive legal commandments, such as the prohibition of usury, that ultimately might or might not lead to the realization of justice.


On the occasion of the Egyptian Revolution, the Shaykh of Al-Azhar, Ahmad Al-Tayyib, issued a statement that directly addressed the Shari‘a and its import upon the Egyptian Revolution (Newspusher 2011). This statement promised to be a seminal event if he did not go on to betray it later. It should be noted that the position of the Shaykh of Al-Azhar is a highly prominent one in the Sunni Muslim world. The Shaykh of Al-Azhar is in essence the highest-ranking jurist in the Sunni Muslim world, and thus the holder of this office enjoys a considerable degree of prominence and respect among Muslims. On Wednesday, February 16, 2011, the Shaykh of Al-Azhar issued a telling statement setting forth the following: First, the Shaykh stated that Shari‘a endorses the principle of majoritarian rule; therefore, whatever legal system is desired by the majority, as long as it upholds the principles of Shari‘a, is also the Islamically mandated and required legal system. Second, the Shaykh went on to explain that the objectives and principles of Shari‘a are to: (1) promote knowledge and ‘ilm (science), (2) establish justice and equity, and (3) protect liberty and human dignity. Third, he argued that a political system that upholds the basic moral values and natural principles of justice shared by all religions is mandated by Islam. Fourth, he argued that democracy is a fundamental and basic objective of any Shari‘a-based system because it is the political system most likely to lead to upholding the dignity of all, to the prohibition of cruel and degrading treatment and torture, and to bringing an end to political and economic corruption and despotism. The Shaykh argued that the protection of human dignity, the prohibition of cruelty and torture, the elimination corruption, and the end to despotism are, in turn, basic and fundamental Shari‘a values. Finally, the Shaykh stated that as an institution, Al-Azhar calls for a system of governance that respects the rights of all citizens and that despotism is inherently and fundamentally a breach of Shari‘a. He explained that, among other things, despotism creates social ills such as cowardice, hypocrisy, social alienation, and a lack of a collective or communal ethos, all of which are contrary to Shari‘a.


To jurists such as the Shaykh of Al-Azhar and Qaradawi, then, the Egyptian Revolution and its democratic goals are Islamic—they are in fact a proper expression of the normative values of Shari‘a. Importantly, however, I do not believe that this perspective or conceptualization of Shari‘a was engineered by the jurists and adopted by the masses. As discussed below, the idea of an innate and inherent relationship between Shari‘a and justice and the idea of Shari‘a as fundamentally at odds with despotism are firmly anchored in the Islamic tradition. So, for instance, the Shaykh of Al-Azhar’s proclamation was enthusiastically received all over the Muslim world, and not just in Egypt. Yet, Al-Azhar was placed on the defensive because of the criticism that its proclamation came late or that it should have been issued in the first days of the revolution. Islamic authorities or institutions that chose to support Mubarak’s despotic regime increasingly found themselves marginalised and sidelined.




The Egyptian revolution was sparked by an idealistic group of youth who had lost faith in all the institutions of power. This youth was defiant, innocent, idealistic, and uncorrupted. It was initially successful because the destitute masses had suffered enough.


The Egyptian revolution presented the arrogant and domesticated secular intelligentsia with a true challenge. Suddenly, for the first time, they were presented with the task of practicing what they preached, and of speaking for the populace without the mediating role of the repressive state. Even when at times, they defended the rights of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or of an Islamist, the repressive state stood as an ultimate guarantor that the Islamists would never become too powerful.

For decades, this intelligentsia theorised about the sovereign will, reactionism, progressivism and the place of Egypt in world history, but for the first time, they were forced to come face to face, deal with, and explain themselves to the Egyptian people. For the first time, they could not simply dismiss the Islamists with contempt and arrogance, and they would have to figure out a native language—a language that does not simply transplant Western concepts, ideas and historical movements, but would actually empower these ideas with meaning to the Egyptian people. Would the secular intelligentsia be capable of working through the will of the people without guardian state institutions such as the army, police, or judiciary to package this will and present it in a palatable fashion?

Why did the secular intelligentsia fear the Muslim Brotherhood so much? The Brotherhood had been the perpetual victim. Since 1954, there was no significant time that passed without the Brotherhood being persecuted and repressed in some fashion or another. Unable to depend on the powers of the state, the Brotherhood developed a network of charitable projects, and lived and preached among Egypt's disappearing middle class and impoverished masses.


The secular intelligentsia tried to put off an electoral showdown with Islamists. They openly complained that they had not had a chance to work with the masses while the Islamists were adept at tricking and cajoling the simple-minded public that could not understand complex ideas such as constitutionalism and limitations on power. They tried in every way to dissuade the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from holding a referendum that raised the ultimate question of the Islamic identity of the state. Many of them tried to convince the SCAF that true democracy requires the banning of religiously based parties, and the prohibition of religious symbolism in elections. However, the military wanted a real sense of the pulse of the masses, and did not want to be dragged into a violent showdown with Islamists.


The Islamists won the referendum of March 19, 2011 with 77 percent of the vote. The parliamentary elections of November 28, 2011 was a landslide in favor of the Islamists with the Brotherhood winning 43.3 percent and other Islamic alliances winning 25 percent. The Shura Council elections were also a landslide win with the Brotherhood capturing 58.3 percent and al-Nour 25 percent of the popular vote.

Both the secular intelligentsia and the SCAF itself were now worried, and the elite class of petty capitalists who for decades had thrived only through a parasitical relationship with Mubarak's corrupt state apparatus were worried as well. On June 14, 2012 the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), staffed by Mubarak appointees, dissolved the entire parliament because purportedly the election laws discriminated against independent candidates. On June 18, 2012 the SCAF passed the infamous ‘revisions’ to the first Constitutional Declaration insulating the armed forces from civilian oversight or accountability and granting the army veto power over the act of declaring war. A few days later on June 25, the SCC challenged the legality of the Shura Council, giving a clear indication that it too was likely to be dissolved.


The last remaining hope for the Islamists was the presidential elections, which were begrudgingly held by the SCAF after repeated demonstrations and protests. Just in case the Islamist dominated parliament would not be dissolved by the SCC, the SCAF and the judiciary allowed General Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, to run against the Islamists despite the numerous corruption charges pending against him. Moreover, the old regime with its full network of petty capitalists put all its weight behind General Shafiq, who was reinvented by the privately owned media into a revolutionary figure who fervently believed in the rule of law.


Considering that General Shafiq was given the full support of the Egyptian state and that the privately owned media launched a full-fledged attack on the Brotherhood, the real surprise was that President Mohammed Morsi was still able to eek out a narrow victory of 51.7 percent against Shafiq's 48.3 percent. The presidential elections presented the secular intelligentsia with a stark choice: they could support the old order or they could swallow the bitter pill of supporting an Islamist candidate.

Most chose to do neither. But their sense of grievance and belief that the masses were not mature enough to decide the fate of the country through free elections was only reaffirmed.


Morsi and the Brotherhood gave their secular opponents a golden opportunity with his poor performance as Egypt's first freely elected president. Comforted by the repeated electoral victories, he moved against two bastions of privilege and power in Egypt—both secular, entitled, elitist and deeply offended at having to limit their power. Egypt is the only purported democracy where it is a criminal offense to criticize the military or judiciary and it is impossible to penetrate through the veil of immunity behind which corruption takes place.


After secularist members of the Constitutional Constituent Assembly (CCA) of 2012 began to boycott the drafting process, and the threat of the dissolution of the CCA by SCC again was looming, President Mohammad Morsi issued a presidential decree on November 22, 2012, which contained several contentious articles. These included: all constitutional declarations made by Morsi could not be appealed until a new constitution was put in place, no judicial authority could dissolve the CCA or the Shura Council, and the president was authorised to take any measures in order to ‘preserve and safeguard the revolution, national unity or national security’ (Al-Masry Al-Youm 2012). This political opportunism of Morsi can only be read in the context of the repeated obstructionism of the SCC and the military—the constant threats of dissolving democratically elected bodies.


Soon after this decree was issued a new oppositional coalition was created called the National Salvation Front (NSF), which included many secularists and fulool (remnants of the Mubarak regime). This loose group of people accused Morsi of being worse than former President Hosni Mubarak, and for grabbing sweeping powers in order to push the Islamist backed constitution through (Al-Amin 2012). Though the NSF claimed to represent the liberal constituency in Egyptian society and saw themselves as the safe guarders of the secular state, they could not claim a democratic mandate or legitimacy.


Although the Islamists were able to pass the New Egyptian Constitution by a 63.8 percent vote on December 25, 2012 this was the last straw. The old regime with its unholy and somewhat psychotic alliances returned. The secular intelligentsia once again manned all of the podiums provided by the privately owned media, the SCC kept rejecting draft after draft of the revised electoral law that was intended to save the Shura Council from being dissolved, and the military started negotiating with Washington, D.C. and Saudi Arabia to remove Morsi from power. The obstructionism of the military and judiciary did not start and end at the level of political process. Ahmad Makki, former Minister of Justice, spoke in detail in an interview about the subversive acts against Morsi’s government that were undertaken by the secular forces (Jarida al-Sha‘b al-Jadid 2013). This included economic sabotage and obstruction by police forces, in which police forces literally left the streets and unleashed baltagiya (state sponsored thugs) and then blamed the Morsi government for the increase in violence.

The massive turnout of protestors on June 30, 2013 came as nothing short of a real gift to the Brotherhood's opponents. Weeks before the secular intelligentsia had been openly calling upon the old guardians—namely, the military and judiciary—to intervene to save Egypt's revolution reminiscent of the role they have consistently played since the colonial era, they called upon old guardians to save the country from the follies of its natives. The guardians of truth needed to reset the revolution on its proper course by undoing the results of all six elections and by turning over the revolution to its rightful owners - the rightful owners being the possessors of the secular truth, that religion has no role in the public sphere, and that the masses need to be shepherded into a democracy rather than be treated as true sovereign agents.


The actual coup was a mere formality. The military coup was planned months before and it was not a spontaneous intervention on behalf of the Egyptian people (Al-Mashhad 2013).[2] The secular intelligentsia, however, felt more empowered than ever before. Now, they badly wanted to believe that in one year of Morsi's rule, they had finally achieved what they had failed to achieve since the colonial period—mass appeal. This is why they jumped on the figure of thirty million people demonstrating in Tahrir as proof positive of the legitimacy of the secular project. It is this group in Tahrir Square and no other, who are the indisputable source of legitimacy, and of what the intelligentsia knew all along, that Islamists should return to the periphery of power where they belong, and should be prevented by the old guardians from misleading the masses.


What follows is a discussion on the primary factors that contributed to the failure of the Egyptian revolution: the military, secular intelligentsia, and, lastly, the illusory yet undisguised counterrevolutionary acts of Saudi Arabia. While I discuss these actors separately, they should be understood as an interconnected and interdependent alliance.


A.     The Military


The actions and ideological discourse of the Egyptian military have been the most decisive factor in determining post-revolutionary Egypt.  The military’s primary role is not to fight wars, and not even to expect to fight wars, but to run the country. And part of the military creed (al-‘aqida al-‘askariyya) that is explicitly and openly taught in military schools is that it is only the military mind that is incorruptible and that can achieve concrete results. Therefore, part of the military’s ideological makeup is the expectation that it is essential, not to defending the country, but to running the country. And here the expression that one often hears repeated after revolutions—‘when is the military going to return to the barracks,’ or ‘when is the military going to be limited to the barracks’—becomes rather complicated because the military has never really been limited to the barracks in the first place.


Take, for example, the various images of people attempting to perform their prayers while being attacked by security forces, or run over by cars. These images underscored—and this again reflects many of the discourses that I have heard and engaged in after the revolution in Egypt—the extent to which the military and security forces are steeped in the same notion of religious sanctities (ḥurumat). It is a critical sociological concept that the military and the security forces have a different notion of ḥurumat or religious sanctities than the populace. The fact that the military would attack people in prayer, or would attack a mosque, or kill some of the prominent, well respected religious leaders in demonstrations, was a reminder that the military, very much like the military during the colonial age and shortly after the post-colonial age, is of a different cultural orientation than the populace which it rules. This is because these military reflects the culture of its former colonisers—they are alienated and detached from the society they rule.  The Egyptian military never got used to being accountable to the majority of people, rather the military acts as a native coloniser.


Just to provide some broad outlines, initially in June 2011, the military announced that it was willing to meet with all Egyptian intellectuals for discussions about the future of Egypt. In the first meetings we attended, certain generals would basically lecture us about democracy and government, to which we objected. We then had a few sessions where there actually was some give and take. After the Declaration of Azhar, what increasingly became the party line represented by the military was: you people—meaning the intellectuals and the people who support the Egyptian revolution—do not know how dangerous our region is. You do not understand the dangers posed by the puritanical Islamic groups. You do not understand the dangers posed by an independent Azhar (greater independence for Al-Azhar was one of the principles that the Declaration demanded). You do not understand the dangers of being drawn into a war with Israel.


The list of untouchables seemed to increase, until we reached a point where the military said, ‘Yes, we are willing to transition to democracy; however, there are high state interests (maṣaliḥ ‘ulya)— such as the army, Camp David, many business issues, the position of America, and the relationship with Saudi Arabia—that cannot be left to the vagaries of the democratic process.’[3] Here we are left with a basic fundamental question, which I actually posed to one of the generals: if these are high state interests that cannot be left to an autonomous democratic process, and must be guaranteed by the military, how much space is left for a democracy?


In fact, one of the things that has developed—and this reflects the current reality in Egypt—is that you can write articles criticizing God, and you can speak profanely about Islam and Shari‘a, but you cannot criticise the military. There are currently about 6,000 people who are undergoing military trials in Egypt because they have written things that are perceived to be critical of the military or that question the position or the privileges of the military. So how much space is left for a democracy to work in? What does it mean to speak of a democratic revolution in a praetorian state; in a state in which the military has become its own monstrous interest?


The military is a possessor of sacred knowledge. It is a possessor of that knowledge which it calls high national interests—knowledge as to a special relationship with Israel, with the United States, with China, or with Saudi Arabia—and it becomes a form of sacrilege to attempt to open up these issues for discussion or for renegotiation. Of course, this situation is not entirely new or novel. We all too often forget that there was a similar revolutionary constitutional movement at the beginning of the twentieth century in Iran. There was another constitutional revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century in Egypt. And ultimately, these revolutions were aborted by the military, whether the national military on its own, or the national military with foreign aid. In raising these issues, I am saying is that understanding revolutionary movements and democracy is not as simple as studying whether there is a merchant class or a strong middle class, or whether the religious institution is cooperating or not cooperating. One of the things that you quickly confront in the Middle East is the extent to which the region itself is permeated with claims of various interests of various powers, and this has become a true mythology—a mythology that you cannot unpack. For example, there were so many times in meetings with the military when we were told, ‘if you are not careful, Saudi Arabia is ready to bankrupt us. If you do not modify the Azhari language about liberal Islam, Saudi Arabia will withdraw X amount of money from Egypt and the Egyptian economy will collapse.’ That is a mythology that people on the ground have to negotiate, often under horrendous conditions.


B.  The Secular Intelligentsia


Why did the Egyptian secular intelligentsia betray their revolution? Why have they fallen into such profound and blatant contradictions such that they killed the infant revolution? To answer this question we must go back in time and understand what can be described as the time honored traditions of Egyptian politics.


Long before the military coup, the secular intelligentsia and some of their revolutionary partners destined the revolution to a painful suicide by indulging in what has now become an often-repeated offense. They imagined themselves as the one and only true possessors of legitimacy, not because they represent the sovereign will but because they and they alone possess the civilizational and intellectual values necessary for a progressive order in which true democracy, unhampered by reactionary forces, can be achieved.


The colonial era witnessed the rise of a largely Western educated class that was trained and weaned to form the necessary bourgeoisie that would service the state bureaucratic apparatus necessary for servicing colonial interests in the region. However, at that time, many of the Western educated intelligentsia still enjoyed close ties to influential reform-oriented religious figures such as Mohammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905). These religious figures worked to reconcile traditional Islamic values with the modern nation-state, democracy, and constitutionalism. They also represented a symbolic link to historical continuity and the legitimacy of tradition.


The ability of the Westernised intelligentsia to negotiate grounds of commonality with religious intellectual forces granted them a relative degree of native legitimacy. Typically, this Westernised intelligentsia was thoroughly grounded in post-renaissance European thought, but knew precious little about the pre-colonial Islamic epistemic tradition. Indeed, this intelligentsia saw their own native tradition largely through the coloniser’s eyes. In other words, what they understood or believed about Islamic history and thought came largely from the writings of Western orientalists. Even to this day, the general outlook of the secular intelligentsia—their understanding of the progression, trajectory, contributions and the very worth of the Islamic tradition is derived practically exclusively from the writings of Western scholars on Islam.


In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the secular intelligentsia played a critical role in translating orientalist literature into Arabic and taught these sources in urban universities throughout Egypt. As such, they acted as a persistent bridge to transplanting and transforming Western views of Islamic history and thought to an internalised self-view in the consciousness of the urbanised elite. The cooperative and friendly relationship of the Westernised intelligentsia with the reform and liberal minded Islamic scholars did not last. With the rise of Pan-Arab nationalism, and ideological movements such as Nasserism and Ba'athism in the 1950s, the dynamics between the Westernised intelligentsia and Islamic orientations changed in fundamental and dramatic ways. Arab nationalism adopted the rhetoric of religion as a fundamentally reactionary force pitted against a progressive force of national liberation. The secular intelligentsia, which at the time were largely leftist and socialist legitimated and defended the repressive praetorian state as necessary for achieving progressive historical objectives.

A very significant number of Egyptian intellectuals, such as Hussein Haykal (d. 1956), saw religion as a private and personal matter that should play no normative role in the public sphere. In reality, however, religion was not excluded from the public sphere, but it was allowed to exist only within the narrow space allowed it by the Arab secular state. The secular state created officially sanctioned podiums for religion and, in effect, created an official state religion that rubber-stamped and legitimated state politics. At the same time, this state-sponsored religion lost its legitimacy on the ground as the clergy of Azhar became salaried employees of the state. With the domestication of the native Azhari clergy, critical Islamic thought drifted into stale apologetics that placated and satisfied only the most uninspired and unchallenging intellects. This helps explain the powerful symbolism invoked when El-Sisi placed the Shaykh Al-Azhar and the Pope of the Coptic Church on either side of him when he announced his coup.


The 1967 defeat and the rise of Saudi funded Wahhabi-Salafi movements in the 1970s heralded the death of pan-Arab nationalism, and challenged the privileged status of the Westernised Egyptian intelligentsia. While intellectually unsophisticated, Wahhabi-Salafi movements achieved something that the Westernised intelligentsia was no longer capable of doing appeal to and galvanise the masses.

After the cooptation of the scholars of Azhar by the state, and the death of the pan-Arab socialist dream, what captured the imagination of the masses was the impassioned rhetoric of the Islamic groups who recalled in the imagination of their audiences a time of glory when Muslims were powerful and respected, and when justice reigned.


The uncomfortable truth is that the Westernised intelligentsia continued to rely on the repressive state to continue in a privileged status. While Islamic groups appealed to the masses on the street by embracing many of their social and economic problems and by capturing their imagination with the promise of a regained glory, the secular intelligentsia had a very different path.


Over four decades the secular intelligentsia relied on the praetorian state to placate and repress the Islamists. But embracing the evolving language of the age, this intelligentsia adopted the Western language of democracy, pluralism, civil society and human rights. While failing to understand or engage the aspirations of the masses, the secular intelligentsia adopted an increasingly elitist and even supremacist attitude towards Islamists. They borrowed the language of modernity, postmodernity, globalization and the international community as a self-assuring and self-congratulatory discourse about their own ability to understand the complexity of the modern world, to rise up to the challenges of the globalization, and to move Egyptian society towards development and progress. Meanwhile, the gap between the rich and poor grew ever larger, and the economic problems of Egypt became more complicated.


The secularist and Islamist discourses grew ever more polarised. The secularists saw the Islamists as reactionary forces often describing them as dhalamiyyun (‘of the dark ages’ or ‘living in the dark ages’), and the Islamists saw the secularists as essentially alien to the society they claimed to represent. The irony is that both parties spoke the language of democracy and civil rights, and both continued to believe that they represented the true and legitimate public good. In the name of democracy, Islamists won elections and in the name of democracy the secular intelligentsia continued to rely on the repressive state as their guarantor against the reactionary Islamist forces.


The Mubarak regime balanced the Islamist media with a secular media. The same balancing act is played by the Saudi government, which owns secular channels such as the rather racy MBC and plays them off religious channels such as Iqraa. Importantly, the Mubarak regime had a complex network of incentives, rewards and punishments for journalists, writers, media personalities and everyone who could affect public opinion. Most of the secular intelligentsia became clientele of the state in which they played the role of the loyal opposition. Their measured and domesticated opposition legitimated the repressive state apparatus that had become increasingly savage and brutal.


This is why the secular intelligentsia did not have a problem with the unlawful closings of the media owned by Islamists and with the unjust arrests that included the speaker of the dissolved parliament and even the attorneys who represented the Brotherhood before the SCC.


Paradoxically, it is the secular intelligentsia that unwittingly admitted the empty circle in which they keep revolving. According to them, 1952 and 2013 were legitimate revolutions in modern Egyptian history - in 1952, the army rose against injustice and the people backed it up, and in June 2013 the people rose against injustice and the army backed them up (Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt 2013). But the secular intelligentsia fails to note that in both 1952 and 2013 the army remained the ultimate arbiter of power and the only force that at will invents and destroys constitutions, rights and institutions.


D.   Saudi Arabia


It speaks volumes that no country did more to undermine Morsi’s regime and no government openly celebrated his overthrow more than the Saudi government.  This is because the Saudi government understands something that all of the rejoicing people in Egypt are failing to understand.  Another military coup means the death of the Egyptian democratic experiment.  Saudi Arabia realises what will come next—the exclusion of the Islamists will lead to radicalization, and radicalization will mean violence, and violence will be the foundation upon which the military and old security forces of Mubarak will arrest, torture, and kill all in the name of public safety and high national interests.  Saudi Arabia understands that the democratic threat that the Egyptian experiment once posed to Saudi autocracy is over because today, it is the Brotherhood that is being thrown in prison and tortured.  In a year from now, the young dreamy youth who rejoiced and danced when Morsi was overthrown will find themselves in the next cell-block to the Brotherhood.   


Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, played a major, although not yet fully known, role in setting up the coup.  He flew to the capitals of several Western countries weeks before the coup, urging them to support a takeover by the military.  It is also known that he met, on several occasions, Egyptian military officials and that plans were in the making to dislodge Morsi since November 2012 (Asrar ‘Arabiyya 2013). Other than the well-known aid package to Egypt of $5 billion weeks after the coup, King Abdullah made an unusually blunt public statement in which he called upon all Muslims to support the Egyptian army in its heroic fight against the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood. The United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia pledged money that far exceeds the aid Egypt receives from the U.S. and the European Union combined, in the event that the U.S. and E.U. might attempt to punish the Egyptian army by cutting off aid.  The Israelis and the UAE repeatedly assured El Sisi that regardless of how tough John Kerry or John McCain might sound, when all was said and done, they would not cut off aid, and even if they did, the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia would more than cover it.  Meanwhile, Mohammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the UAE Foreign Minister, intervened on behalf of El Sisi urging the U.S. not to cut off aid, even after the toll of those killed and arrested kept rising.


What brings all of these parties together?  Was it just a knee jerk reaction to the Muslim Brotherhood?  Not quite.  The Brotherhood did try to tread carefully and accommodate the military in a number of ways. However, it is the trail of money that provides the best evidence.  The Brotherhood tried to enter into several business relationships that would have challenged the economic interests of the military, and even attempted numerous under-the-table corrupt deals with investors from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, as well as some other Gulf countries.  The Brotherhood succeeded in entering into agreements with Turkey, China, and India.  This caused the anger among the ranks of the wealthy generals to begin exploding like fireworks, to the point that the military showed up on numerous television channels denouncing, and even demonizing these deals as disastrous.  The reasons given were not just unconvincing, but bordered on the neurotic.  El Sisi, himself, spoke frankly about the role that these deals played in his coup decision.  In November, 2012, he tried to get President Mohammad Morsi to understand by giving him the military’s strategic outlook, which incidentally focused heavily on maintaining the ongoing commercial ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, while steering away from Turkey and Iran, and approaching China only after getting the U.S.’ consent to any substantial investment.  When Morsi did not give El Sisi the response he hoped for, by El Sisi’s own admission, the military stopped talking to the elected President in March of 2013, and according to El Sisi, he realised that the problem needed a solution of a different kind. For example, in March 2013 National Salvation Front leader Mohammed ElBaradei met with Ahmed Shafiq and Bin Zayed in the UAE to discuss plans to overthrow Morsi (Al-Amin 2013). Furthermore, ElBaradei along with other opposition leaders had multiple meetings with the Egyptian military in which the military officers assured him that the military would take over if there was a sufficient number of protesters in the street (Levinson and Bradley 2013).

Most importantly, in my view, panicking from the new breed of democratic Islam, the Saudis waged a campaign of economic sabotage against Morsi's government causing repeated power outages and gasoline shortages all over Egypt. And, they opened their coffers to numerous writers and journalists for waging an incessant and sometimes irrational campaign against the Brotherhood. In addition to this devastating economic sabotage, which miraculously right after the coup power and fuel were flowing as usual in Egypt, a smear campaign was waged against the Muslim Brotherhood with Saudi Arabia and the UAE supplying millions to opposition satellite channels, journalists, and the Tamarrud (Rebellion) campaign (Asrar ‘Arabiyya 2013).


C.   Dominating Religion in Egypt’s Pseudo-Secular State


Recently, Egypt's ruling junta made a decision to withdraw the licenses granted to well over fifty thousand mosques (Mada Masr 2013). In a move that is unprecedented in Islamic history, hundreds of thousands of imams (Muslim prayer leaders) have been banned from leading religious services, and only clerics who, not only graduated from Al-Azhar Seminary, but are also employees of the Ministry of Religious Endowments (Ministry of Awqaf) will be permitted to lead services in Egypt.


I do not believe that commentators fully understand the profound implications of this decision. It is no exaggeration to say that if the Egyptian government actually implements this decision, it will change the course of history in Egypt, and indeed the trajectory of modern Islamic history.


The immediate reason that the military junta decided to cancel the permits issued to what are typically small-sized mosques known as zawaya (pl.) or zawiya (sing.) is that these underfunded, grossly overcrowded mosques have played an increasingly important role since the revolution, and have been overwhelmingly opposed to the military coup. But in reality, since the mid-1970s, the zawaya have played an active role as dynamic forums for social and political mobilization in financially disadvantaged communities and among marginalised low-income areas all over Egypt.


What distinguishes this move from the numerous other oppressive and blatantly unlawful maneuvers El Sisi and his generals have undertaken since their coup?


The generals and the Egyptian media claim that this was a long needed measure to insure that sermons delivered in the many centuries-old mosques of Egypt meet basic levels of competence and proficiency in the Islamic religious sciences. Moreover, they claim that these zawaya mosques have become a breeding ground for fanatic and extremist discourses that incite and excite ill-educated parishioners. According to the El Sisi apologists, this was a measure that should have been taken a long time ago, but finally, El Sisi had the sheer courage to get the mission accomplished.


It is true that Mubarak's regime had long considered this measure, but never dared to go this far. And decades ago, Nasser shut down a thousand mosques that resisted the socialist government's order of nationalization. However, to appreciate El Sisi's audacious, even insolent step, we need to consider some of the necessary background. For centuries, mosques in Egypt were funded through a complex matrix of private endowments known as the awqaf (sing. waqf). The awqaf performed a variety of social functions including: funding schools like Al-Azhar, orphanages, water works and even animal shelters. Islamic law added layers of complexity by developing a set of rules as to the consecration of mosques, the inalienability of places of worship and, most importantly, the assumption that once land is consecrated as a mosque it cannot be dedicated to any other purpose.


During the Nasser era, all the Muslim religious endowments were nationalised and placed under the control of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. This made all mosques and Muslim religious institutions, such as Al-Azhar Seminary, state owned property. The idea of secularism in Egypt was not a separation between church and state, but a complete dominion by the secular state over all religious institutions. In this capacity, the rentier state is able to control, manipulate and leverage religion to maintain a fundamentally unjust and exploitative power structure (Beblawi 1990: 85-99). 


Interestingly, the Coptic religious endowments remained under the control of the Coptic Church, but the government did not allow for the construction of churches or synagogues without the prior approval of the state. While the Coptic Church could elect its own pope, the consecutive military governments of Egypt insisted on appointing the Shaykh Al-Azhar, the Mufti of the Egyptian State and the Minister of Endowments.


The secular state in Egypt consistently tried to leverage Al-Azhar and its graduates as a legitimating sword used aggressively to justify certain policies, such as the Camp David Accords and the privatization of the public economic sector. At the same time, the state used Al-Azhar as a defensive shield legitimating reactionary and conservative power dynamics, such as patriarchy and the monopolization of wealth in the hands of Egypt's new class of super-pashas.


To these ends, the secular state strictly controlled the intellectual activity and curriculum at Al-Azhar. Meanwhile, economic and political corruption became rampant in religious institutions, such as Al-Azhar and various Sufi guilds. But nothing compares to the infamous level of corruption that continues to plague the Ministry of Religious Endowments.


The Ministry of Awqaf issued ready-made sermons to be delivered by clergy during Friday services. Before very long, all the Friday sermons delivered in the mosques directly owned by the Ministry of Awqaf sounded tediously the same. It is difficult to describe the mind-numbing repetitiveness, dogmatism, irrelevance and sheer monotony of the ten or so sermons authored by the institutions of the state, and regurgitated by uninspired, lethargic and subdued Azhari clergy in one mosque after another across the country.


This somber, dreary reality became the fertile grounds for the spread of the zawiya mosque. Without exception, all zawiya mosques have been built and maintained by private funds and donations. Some are as big as full-sized mosques built on private property, while most are the size of a conference hall, typically found at the street-level floor of residential buildings, and or in the basement of businesses or apartment complexes. Usually, after such structures are designated as mosques, a license is obtained from the Ministry of Awqaf, but the mosque remains private property.


Imams hired to lead prayers and give sermons in these privately owned mosques are usually paid from donations raised by the congregation itself. In most cases, the imams are either retired Azhari shaykhs, unemployed university graduates from one of the professional schools, such as engineering, or young men who have attended one or two years of instruction in one of the privately-owned Qur'an institutes that have sprouted all over Egypt. After passing an examination in Qur'anic recitation and memorization, these imams are issued a license, and although not under the supervision of Al-Azhar, they become community-supported religious leaders.


The zawiya mosques posed a problem on two fronts: first, they often did become breeding grounds for extremist discourses and meeting points for fundamentalist groups; second, because of their small size, worshippers would often end up overflowing to the outside of the mosques, praying on street pavements and, at times, blocking street traffic.


Since the January 25th revolution, the zawiya mosques have played an increasingly politicised role that contrasts sharply with the docile role played by the Azhari mosques. Critically, these mosques and their podiums constituted the only legitimate competition to the monopoly of state-sponsored religion in the crippled civil society of Egypt. By simply cancelling the licenses given to the imams and closing down thousands of zawaya mosques, the Egyptian government is forcing all religious discourse that is not under the formal tutelage of the government to go underground, and to grow more radicalised and polarised.


But even more troublesome is that the closure of these mosques once again demonstrates that Egypt will remain locked between the polarity of an authoritarian pseudo-secularism and an authoritarian pseudo-Islamism. Most of Egypt's secular intelligentsia, who have now become didactic apologists for the military, enthusiastically support the closure decision. In doing so, they once again demonstrate that the secularism of Arab countries such as Egypt has practically nothing to do with the post-enlightenment European tradition of toleration and religious freedom.


The patronizing secularism of Egypt's intellectuals and their military allies has little to do with the idea that a civil government should not presume to know God's will, and then claim to embody that will in its policies. It also has little to do with the state guarding the principle of freedom of religious belief and practice, including the right of religious groups to organise, assemble and participate fully in civil society.


Egyptian secularism is not about the separation of church and state. It is most decisively about the state dominating, controlling and leveraging religion. In effect, the state acts to form a church for the state, and then insures that this church has an uncontested monopoly over the voice of religion in society. Ultimately, the state defines the space that God may occupy and also defines the character that this God is allowed to have, and then allows this God a single voice, which invariably ends up supporting the state as the only real church within society.


We all recall the image of El Sisi bringing an end to Egypt's tragically short-lived democratic experience accompanied by the representatives of Al-Azhar, the Coptic Church and the Wahhabi Nour Party. Soon El Sisi realised that there is a redundancy between Al-Azhar and the Nour party because both are firmly in the comfortable control of Saudi Islam. In other words, even if the Nour party is suppressed, Saudi Arabia will not be strongly opposed because Al-Azhar and the dependence of its administrators on lucrative deals with Gulf countries will insure that Al-Azhar will never become a serious contender in civil society.




In closing, I must say that I wish that the smug pseudo-secularists in Egypt, and their short-sighted allies in the Pentagon, White House and State Department, would think seriously about the fact that the only secularism a country like Egypt has ever known is an autocracy that goes to great lengths to control and dominate the voice of God. God has one function in Egypt and that is to bless the privileges of the privileged, and to overlook the excesses of the self-indulgent.


I believe that we will witness in the not-too-distant future increasingly violent clashes between religious groups that feel secularism is hypocritically intolerant and unprincipled, and the old style Arab elite that thinks secularism means that religion must always protect and guard the status quo. I fear that, eventually, a vicious and bloody revolution will bring about an Iranian-style theocracy in Egypt. It is all too often forgotten that the CIA coup of the democratically elected Musaddiq government in Iran in 1953 led to the Iranian revolution some twenty years later.





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[1] I am very grateful to my students Holly Robins and Dana Lee, and my wife Grace Song for their competent and efficient assistance.


[2] Mona Makram Ebeid, a former legislator under Mubarak and an advisor to SCAF during the transition period, spoke before the Middle East Institute on July 11 and stated that she was invited to a meeting with Hasaballah Al-Kafrawi and General Fuad Allam, along with a number of other secularists, on the morning of June 30th. During this meeting Kafrawi stated that he was in touch with El Sisi, the army, the Coptic Pope, and Sheikh Al-Azhar and that General El Sisi requested a ‘written popular demand’ in order for the army to intervene. A statement was produced with over 50 anti-Morsi signatories requesting the army’s intervention.


[3] The military informed us that this is the position of the United States, and that the United States informed the military that the military must guarantee certain non-negotiable interests such as certain privileges for the American military in Egypt and Camp David, as well as some other interests that I am restricted from mentioning.


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