Egypt: In the shadow of the state

Ibrahim El-Houdaiby , Saturday 13 Apr 2013

The state has tried to dominate society along with institutions like Al-Azhar since the mid-19th century. Liberation, post-revolution, means restoring society as a leader not follower of the state

22 June 1961: The National Assembly is almost vacant. Some 89 members send their regrets; 42 are excused; and 48 are absent without excuse or permission. The atmosphere is tense inside the room and all eyes are turned to the podium where a number of military revolution commanders are sitting, alongside Parliament Speaker Anwar Al-Sadat is warning attending MPs about the consequences of resisting the proposed legislation being discussed in this rushed debate.

Sadat said: “Those who stood up against the revolution on 23 July 1952 were crushed underfoot. Today is another revolution and those who oppose it will share the same fate.”

Under such conditions, as told by Fathi Radwan, Law 103 of 1961 on restructuring Al-Azhar and its bodies was passed, after MPs capitulated “not out of conviction but great fear.” Accordingly, Al-Azhar was nationalised, ending its independence. which had protected it against repeated intervention by the state, rendering the mosque and school into a government university and the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar a public servant of the state. Al-Azhar was no longer the top academic Sharia institution it had been since the Ayyubid era.

This nationalisation was the fruit of three intersecting processes that traditional societal institutions had gradually experienced since the mid-19th Century, namely modernisation, Egyptianisation and state dominance. The outcome was stripping society’s ability to manage its own affairs, and subjecting all its institutions to the state’s growing influence. Also, restructuring and redefining it according to the will of those at the top.

Passing this law was a victory after a century of strong resistance, and the new situation required Al-Azhar to coordinate its positions with the desires of state rulers. It increased the “political” ingredient in its positions at the expense of the “religiously legitimate” that had once been its banner.

The inevitable outcome was that Al-Azhar’s Sharia positions were manipulated by the state’s political stance, which was evident for example in Al-Azhar’s position on the Palestinian issue. In 1973, then-Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Mohamed Al-Fahham (1969-1973) pronounced: “The obligation of jihad against Israel is to save Islamic territories from enemy control.”

But his successor, Grand Sheikh Abdel-Halim Mahmoud (1973-1978), declared his support of Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, even before Al-Azhar explained its change of heart by saying opposition to peace with Israel (at the time of Abdel-Nasser) was because there was conviction the enemy can be defeated.

This was also evident in repeated statements and stances by Grand Sheikh Sayed Tantawi (1996-2010), including a statement that as sheikh of Al-Azhar he is a public servant who follows state policies and cannot diverge from them.

The problem of the state’s relation to Al-Azhar was not only caused by the corruption of those in power, but also the nature of the relationship between the institutions of society and the institution of the state as the latter grew and dominated power, and viewing laws it issued as the only source of Sharia.

Accordingly, the problem was not resolved automatically when those in power left, and Al-Azhar perhaps became even more politicised after the revolution.

First, it published a “political” document describing its vision of governing; then Al-Azhar was used as a tool to resolve a dispute between “Islamists” and “civilians” when the constitution was being written (when some declared Azhar as the reference for Sharia, which made it a political battleground for various currents). Then, by exercising this constitution by asking Al-Azhar to give an opinion on very complicated issues such as loans and bonds, on which it sometimes responded with more political than Sharia-based opinions.

Sufi orders had preceded Al-Azhar on a similar path. After once being widespread societal institutions when Mohamed Ali came to power (and all Muslim Egyptians were members of these orders, according to Description de l’Égypte), their independence began to gradually contract as they came under state control. This first occurred through decrees by the ruler appointing the top Sufi leader, then by attempts to adjust and specify their role in the mid-19th Century, and later by issuing regulations for Sufi orders in 1895, and 1903 and amendments in 1905. These stripped the legal status of existing groups and required them to register with the nascent state to gain legitimacy, which changed the balance of power between them.

Law 118 of 1976 established interference by the state’s executive power in the Supreme Council of Sufi Orders by including four ministers, and defining the scope of Sufi activities that gave the state the right to interfere in them at any time. The outcome was increasing politicisation of Sufi orders, which transitioned from participating in the Orabi revolution and the 1948 War of Liberation to celebrating the peace treaty with Israel at Al-Hussein Mosque.

State dominance also penetrated other institutions, such as religious endowments that owned one fifth of agricultural land at the beginning of the 19th Century. In 1835, the Bureau of Public Endowments was created to bring it under state control; in 1846, the new bureau was dismantled and then reinstated in 1851. It became a department in 1878, then a bureau in 1884 and finally a ministry in 1913. This demonstrates continuous efforts to intrude on the “department” of endowments before interfering with its spending.

Law 48 of 1946 allowed the elimination of existing endowments; Law 547 of 1953 assigned supervision to the state alone and no one else, unless the supervisor is the same person who donated the endowment. Then Law 30 of 1957 allowed the Ministry of Religious Endowments to change the spending fields, which made it a subject of the state as an institution along with its spending.

Meanwhile, the influence of unions for skilled workers — which when Mohamed Ali came to power were 64 with a sheikh for each to mediate with the regime and manage their affairs — diminished as the state came to monopolise materials and marketing.

Then skilled workers were rounded up by force to work in army factories and, under Saeed, the authority of sheikhs to collect taxes, and administer judicial and official discipline was cancelled altogether. Finally, laws regulating union action were issued subjecting all unions (especially the largest) to state control.

The state dominated society for decades before the revolution with a variety of tools (principally, fear and appeal). Thus, the only way to liberate society after revolution is to reconsider the state's role and the processes it produced, as well as restoring society’s role as the leader not the follower, so that the state serves society and not the other way around.

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