Religion in State and Society

Egyptians often describe their society as a religious one, and indeed religion plays a prominent role in public life in Egypt. However, there are grounds here for tension as well as consensus.11

Socially, there are periods when tension between religion and politics becomes more acute, and periods when it subsides. One might define moments of low tension, or relative equilibrium, as moments when neither the religious nor the political side seeks major modification of the relationship. At other moments, one side or the other seeks revision.12 Indeed, the relationship between religious and political institutions in Egypt remains unstable for two key reasons: First, there is constant social and economic change in the form of urbanization, social mobility, and improved communication. These changes have increased pluralism and produced conflict within the religious sphere. Some elements of the religious sphere have sought to make religion a more prominent, or even a dominant, part of the state. Second, in return, the Egyptian state has responded by seeking to further suppress religious institutions.

In addition, by restricting political participation and representation throughout society, Egypt’s authoritarian leadership has diverted internal tensions toward other spheres of life: cultural, social, economic, and legal. In particular, by denying its citizens access to political space and either refusing or failing to uphold its end of the social contact—providing for social needs such as poverty reduction, infrastructure development, and employment (to name a few) in exchange for its continued authoritarian rule—the Egyptian government has reinforced the authority of the Islamic establishment, which has evolved in response to changing political opportunities, gaining influence and power along the way.13 Moreover, while the religious and political spheres have not yet fully agreed upon an ideological foundation for the Egyptian state, there does seem to be some narrowing of ideological differences. The Islamist movement has succeeded in creating a more religious society and in goading the state to greater religious sensibility. In defending itself against the “Islamic rise,” the Egyptian state has itself become significantly more religious in orientation. Thus, Islamist ideology has penetrated the Egyptian state, and the state has produced a reshaping of Islamist ideology.14

How then does this heavy dose of Islam affect those Egyptians who are not Muslims? Egyptian Copts pride themselves on being one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and many often note that the words Copt and Egypt have the same etymology. But while Egyptian Christians often complain of marginalization, few have called for the complete separation of religion and state.

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