Table of Contents


Egyptian state institutions have a powerful presence in the religious realm—teaching, preaching, broadcasting, adjudicating, legislating, and conducting scholarship on religious issues. While the institutions themselves are deeply rooted in society, the past decade has seen tremendous turmoil in the context in which they operate: an Islamist movement entered the halls of power and was evicted, a new president with an agenda in the religious realm has reassembled and deepened an authoritarian system, and security bodies have repressed some religious organizations and movements as well as policed others.

In important ways, Egypt’s various official religious bodies not only survived the turmoil but emerged in a more powerful position. They are more autonomous and more cohesive; they also have seen strong unofficial rivals to their influence in Egyptian society edged aside. But each of these developments seems precarious. Newfound autonomy is surviving insecurely under a security-minded regime and a domineering president, and cohesion is challenged by potential rivalries among key figures, sometimes aggravated by regime attempts to play favorites. Furthermore, institutions’ social influence remains uncertain in a society in which traditional authorities wrestle with the limits of what heavy-handed political tools can accomplish.

The role of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the religious realm has attracted tremendous international and domestic attention. Internationally, he has garnered some approval as a promoter of what he calls “renewed Islamic discourse.”1 Regionally, he is a leader in the camp of those who wish to eliminate political Islam—his regime not only deposed former president Mohamed Morsi and arrested thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members, but also seized thousands of independent mosques and hundreds of charities with ties to Islamist movements. Sisi’s 2015 speech calling for a religious revolution, made before an audience of senior religious scholars, was music to the ears of Western leaders at a time when the self-proclaimed Islamic State was not only spreading across parts of Iraq and Syria but inspiring violence in Europe and the United States as well. Domestically, Sisi has lectured religious leaders on topics ranging from religious thought to extremism to divorce. Indeed, while Egyptian observers often analyze presidential efforts as a return to past periods of regime domination, Sisi has tread into doctrinal matters where his predecessors showed little interest.

But while Sisi’s effort to steer religious teachings and discussion is real—and hardly likely to end—its effects are uncertain to date. While some parts of the state religious establishment have been responsive and are under direct regime control, others—most notably the globally preeminent Islamic university and center of Islamic studies known as al-Azhar, and especially its top leadership—have jealously protected their autonomy and firmly (if generally gently) resisted presidential instruction on particular matters.

Nathan J. Brown
Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.
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Egypt’s Islamic establishment is composed of a complex of institutions, many of which have been involved in a wide range of issues in recent years, sparking debate over their reform and renewal. Such debates are happening on a structural level—with the Parliament an arena for such arguments—but also in general public discussions about the need for and meaning of renewal. This has led to a political tug of war over control of the religious establishment, involving not only the president’s initiatives but also the actions of other critical actors. The resulting outcomes not only affect the reforms on Egyptian society to date but also amount to a struggle for control of religious institutions.

Islamic Institutions in Egypt

Islamic institutions have been a part of the Egyptian state apparatus as it has emerged over time—with some of them dating back over a millennium (long before they were formally folded into the official apparatus). Al-Azhar was founded in 972 by a then-ruling Shia dynasty; others have histories that are shorter only by comparison, dating back to the Ottoman period or the nineteenth century. In Egypt, where political and religious authority have often overlapped, much effort has been expended over who leads these religious institutions and how much they are answerable to the political ruler or regime. Tussling over the control and oversight of Islamic schools, mosques, and other bodies dates back to the construction of a modern bureaucratic state in Egypt in the nineteenth century, with rulers attempting to sway, co-opt, and dominate various institutions. In the 1960s, the regime of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser took an intrusive approach, and direct regime control over the religious apparatus reached its height. The Nasser regime’s tools were never abandoned, but subsequent decades saw a gradual loosening, with rulers sometimes playing various institutions off against each other but also hoping that the state religious apparatus together would confront or at least contain radical religious movements, especially as those movements won a foothold in parts of Egyptian society from the 1970s onward.

In Egypt, where political and religious authority have often overlapped, much effort has been expended over who leads these religious institutions and how much they are answerable to the political ruler or regime.

Some within Islamic institutions have always pressed to maximize their autonomy and win even more. They won a victory of sorts in the tumult surrounding the 2011 uprising, not only getting a greater degree of autonomy written into the law but also proving their worth to security-minded state officials who were skeptical of—and ultimately moved against—the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists.2 When Sisi assumed the presidency, therefore, he found a mixed religious establishment, of which some groups were allies in some ways. However, others had powerful actors willing to insist that their credibility rested on some distance from day-to-day politics and their protection of religious heritage and learning, which they saw as a national treasure based on deep expertise that transcended the policy directions of senior members of the executive branch.


Al-Azhar perhaps stands as Egypt’s leading religious institution—and that is certainly how it presents itself. With a network of primary and secondary schools, a university, a set of research and scholarly bodies, and an international educational presence, al-Azhar is a complex of many different institutions, led by a figure with the title “grand imam” (also commonly called the sheikh of al-Azhar) with an office that oversees all subordinate parts.

While al-Azhar is part of the Egyptian state apparatus, its strong sense of mission and identity—with its scholars and students wearing distinctive garb and its loyal followers and alumni spread throughout the country and world—makes al-Azhar an institution that cultivates a mindset among its leadership—as well as many of its rank-and-file faculty, students, and personnel—that it has a global, divinely inspired mission. Its Facebook page announces that “God designated Egypt in al-Azhar to be a lighthouse to the entire Arab-Islamic world.”3

That image—and that role—has given the institution a powerful voice in religious affairs and in public affairs more generally that has made it not only influential but also a political prize to be won. And it has led to regime efforts, especially in the modern era, to draw al-Azhar’s support for regime policies, ideology, and rhetoric. With the clear assertion of state control over religious endowments (and thus the many properties whose rental incomes have supported al-Azhar) over the past century and a half, as well as other legal and administrative moves during the nineteenth and twentieth century, the tools of regime influence tended to grow. Direct control probably reached its height after 1961, when the al-Azhar institution was reorganized—its Hay’at Kibar al-Ulema (Body of Senior Scholars) was abolished and its university was placed under more direct watch and forced to add secular faculties. At this same time, the religious pronouncements coming out of al-Azhar proved supportive of the regime’s ideological directions.

Al-Azhar has a powerful voice in religious affairs and in public affairs more generally that has made it not only influential but also a political prize to be won.

Controls gradually loosened again from the 1970s onward, though not so much through formal change and more through a loosening of centralization in parts of the Egyptian state during the presidencies of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Still, some within the religious institutions’ ranks and supporters, and certainly within Islamist opposition movements, denounced what they saw as continuing regime controls. The ranks of al-Azhar contained a wide variety of jurisprudential and doctrinal approaches, and indeed al-Azhar institutionally has portrayed itself as broadly accepting of the various schools of Islamic law. And al-Azhar’s leaders themselves seized the opportunity of the 2011 uprising to prevail upon the country’s interim military leadership to grant religious institutions far more autonomy than they had enjoyed for many decades. That was accomplished in a piece of January 2012 legislation that rushed through the armed forces’ council four days before the Islamist-dominated Parliament sat for its session, likely an attempt by the military to ensure that al-Azhar would remain independent from the regime.4

Michele Dunne
Michele Dunne is a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The law re-established the Body of Senior Scholars as the head of al-Azhar; the first members of the body were to be named by then incumbent al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb; they were then to name his successors as well as their own when a vacancy opened. The grand imam has proceeded slowly, never filling out the full membership of the body. Appointments have been a careful balancing act—not simply because various specializations and legal schools have to be represented but also because al-Tayeb has moved cautiously and been generally inclined toward figures with the right combination of scholarly accomplishment, quiet demeanor, and seniority. He has named a few very public figures, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Doha-based Egyptian scholar who served on the body initially, and Ali Gomaa, the former grand mufti who still serves on the body and has been a harsh critic of the Muslim Brotherhood and a very visible supporter of the post-2013 regime. But most other members are known only among other Azharis and have limited public recognition. Al-Tayeb has learned to turn to the body regularly to issue statements and even propose a draft law with the authority of its collective wisdom rather than simply that of his office.

And the body—as well as the lifetime tenure of the grand imam—has become critical to al-Azhar’s ability to maintain an independent voice. It is not that al-Azhar’s leaders see their role as oppositional; far from it. Al-Azhar’s leaders fully accept the legitimacy of the existing political order and support the political leadership’s authority to administer the country as it sees necessary to serve the public interest. Its leaders thus tend to be conservative—not necessarily regarding policy (though some can be) but accepting a political order that they see as making righteous social life and religious practice possible. So even while, for instance, closely guarding its own autonomy, al-Azhar does not hesitate to cooperate with the Ministry of Interior in devising mechanisms of local conflict resolution.

But al-Azhar is still very jealous of controlling its own internal operations. The institution’s leadership, for instance, was very suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood, but systematic purges and arrests of Brotherhood members and sympathizers took place over a more prolonged period (compared with other universities) because of the institution’s greater autonomy. And it continues to insist that it needs to follow its own methods in teaching and determining doctrine.

If the grand imam and the Body of Senior Scholars are the linchpin of the institution’s autonomy, the university and the network of primary and secondary schools are the secret of its widespread presence in Egyptian society. This is not only true in a formal sense—there are al-Azhar schools all over the country—but also in an informal sense. Most religious officials and employees, including all preachers in state-regulated mosques, are al-Azhar alumni, giving the institution a constituency that few other parts of the religious apparatus can match.

Dar al-Ifta

Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, a state institution headed by the grand mufti and sometimes called the Office of the Mufti, dates its origin to 1895.5 While there had been chief muftis before this date with some official roles, that period saw a host of religious positions being transformed into state bureaucracies with formal regulations, administrative structures, and legal bases.6 The Dar al-Ifta was formally attached to the Ministry of Justice—where it technically remains, though it generally presents itself as a freestanding state body. In that sense, the office has grown up alongside the modern Egyptian state, advising its officials (and members of the public who seek its guidance) on religious matters—and clearly establishing Egyptian sovereignty in matters of religious law connected to the state.

Much smaller and more sharply focused in its mandate than the sprawling set of complexes overseen by al-Azhar, the Dar al-Ifta’s role and prominence have varied over its lifetime according to the political circumstances and the prestige of the figure of grand mufti. But especially since the 1970s, its prominence has risen for two reasons. First, the institution provides an authoritative and scholarly voice for a vision of Islamic law that is comfortable with and supportive of the authority of the modern state and critical of radical or oppositional voices. In 2017, for instance, the grand mufti backed the ban on trading Bitcoin because the ban undermined the ability of the Egyptian state to regulate currency, allowed traders to escape security agencies, and could be used by the Islamic State.7

The institution provides an authoritative and scholarly voice for a vision of Islamic law that is comfortable with and supportive of the authority of the modern state.

But Dar al-Ifta is hardly alone in this regard, and that leads to the second reason for its rise in prominence: regimes have been able to play authoritative state bodies like al-Azhar and Dar al-Ifta against each other in support of the policy of the day. In the late twentieth century, the grand mufti and the grand imam of al-Azhar sometimes developed a reputation as rivals, with the mufti junior in stature but generally (but not always) a bit closer in alignment with the regime position.

Rivalry among state institutions has continued over the past decade, but no longer does Dar al-Ifta pose much of a challenge to al-Azhar. As a source of fatwas, or religious rulings, Dar al-Ifta is simply smaller and less well known (with many Egyptians unaware of how it is distinct from al-Azhar, a huge institution with a presence throughout the country). But more significantly, the 2012 law reforming al-Azhar governance also allowed the Body of Senior Scholars to name the grand mufti (with the president retaining only the formal authority to promulgate the appointment).8 Not only did this bring the grand mufti and Dar al-Ifta into al-Azhar’s fold in a formal sense, it also ensured that the mufti would continue to be a more junior figure, as the mufti retires at age sixty while the grand imam enjoys a lifetime appointment.

When Gomaa (a leading public figure who commanded broad respect as a teacher and scholar but who clashed with other scholars in a way that led him to engage in bitter public personal disputes, undercutting his reputation) reached the end of his (extended) term as mufti in 2013, the new law was invoked and led to the appointment of Egypt’s current grand mufti, Shawki Allam—a humble and conciliatory figure who is close to al-Azhar’s leadership.9 The result is that Dar al-Ifta’s prominence as a separate voice has ebbed though its less autonomous position, and the weaker status of its leader, may lead it to be a more reliable supporter of specific regime policies. Allam’s reputation has led to some rumors that the regime will turn to him to replace al-Tayeb as grand imam of al-Azhar, whose relationship with the regime is more nettlesome.

Ministry of Religious Endowments

Perhaps the biggest religious bureaucracy in Egypt is the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which has more than 300,000 employees. However, its status as a ministry—located squarely within the executive branch and indeed inside the cabinet—effectively eliminates its ability to serve as an autonomous religious voice.10 Its head is quite clearly attached to the regime, and the current occupant seems to work to make a virtue out of this necessity. Further, its considerable administrative presence gives it tremendous reach and legal authority, though as an institution it lacks the prestige or reputation of the more autonomous bodies.

The ministry of religious endowments’ considerable administrative presence gives it tremendous reach and legal authority, though as an institution it lacks the prestige or reputation of the more autonomous bodies.

The ministry arose out of a steady growth in administrative oversight of endowments asserted as the modern Egyptian state was built in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Because those endowments supported mosques and charitable and religious institutions, the ministry had an effective oversight role over the structure of Islamic houses of worship and other activities. By the 1950s, it effectively came not simply to oversee and monitor but to control such entities directly.11

The effect has been to turn every recognized mosque in the country into a state-managed facility; every official preacher in the country into a civil servant; and much of the country’s charitable activity (such as distribution of alms) into a state function, at least in theory. Such control does exist in practice, but it can be uneven for several reasons. First, the resources of the ministry have never been sufficient to patrol every place used as a mosque. The religious revival in Egyptian society that began in the 1970s led to the emergence of a large number of privately funded mosques, zawaya (in Egypt, referring to local prayer spaces), and even spontaneous assemblies in open-air settings.12 Second, even in government-controlled mosques, the preachers are trained in al-Azhar institutions, so many have considerable loyalty to their alma mater and look there for guidance on religious issues. Third, mosques and preachers are often embedded in their communities—with local committees to support their work and with preachers who take on a strong pastoral role—that make some feel as anchored in their local society as in the state bureaucracy.

Since 2013, the ministry has used its tools in an effort to enforce a pro-regime line; it has also worked to exclude pockets of opposition (particularly but not exclusively those sympathetic with the Muslim Brotherhood) from the spheres it controls—including a purge that seems to be ongoing rather than simply a short-term creature of the post-2013 environment.13 The ministry has also stepped up oversight both over zakat, or mandatory annual charitable donations made by Muslims, distributed through mosques and over the local committees that often support the work of neighborhood houses of worship. Mosques have been closed outside of prayer time as part of a general, increased regulation of public space but also out of an apparent feeling that mosques have served historically as a meeting ground for Islamists and a recruiting ground for groups oppositional to the regime. And mosques also quickly earned a reputation for being monitored not merely by the ministry but also by state security bodies.

Most publicly, the ministry worked to impose a single “written sermon” in 2016, one that was to be read by every preacher for Friday prayers throughout the country.14 The initiative provoked a storm of criticism, including from al-Azhar, which insisted that it alone was responsible for its own mosque and that its graduates were trained to develop sermons, not simply read one. The dispute ended with the ministry agreeing that it would fix the topic for the sermon (and regulate other matters, like length) and circulate a text, but it would not insist that the text be read word-for-word. In 2019, the ministry further suggested that preachers submit audio and visual recordings of their Friday sermons but backed off the requirement when preachers protested, even while reminding them that it had other tools for monitoring.15 And it was quick to use the coronavirus crisis—in which it dawdled before following the example of al-Azhar and canceling Friday prayers—to renew its efforts to control small prayer rooms, rooftop meetings, and street gatherings.16

The ministry’s sermons are prepared by an expert committee, including members of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, an advisory body within the ministry itself and generally hew to non-controversial topics with two major exceptions. First, the council regularly emphasizes the duty of obeying the wali al-amr (the ruler or leader of a community, which in a political context means the ruler or political authority). Second, it proclaims the necessity of combating terrorism and extremism (terms the ministry uses to describe not only the Islamic State but also the Muslim Brotherhood).17

Such measures sometimes bring the ministry into tension with al-Azhar, an institution that is both protective of its autonomy and moral and religious authority and is insistent that its voice is authoritative on doctrinal matters.

Such measures sometimes bring the ministry into tension with al-Azhar, an institution that is both protective of its autonomy and moral and religious authority and is insistent that its voice is authoritative on doctrinal matters. At times, the minister of religious endowments and the grand imam have seemed personal rivals as well, in the same way the grand mufti and the grand imam tussled in earlier decades—leading to periodic public assurances that the two officials have harmonious relations and their institutions are allied.18

Other Institutions With Religious Authority

The Ministry of Religious Endowments and al-Azhar are the most visible and extensive parts of the state apparatus that deal with religion. But they are hardly alone. The Ministry of Interior issues identity cards and thus determines the religious status of each citizen (which in turn determines the family law that applies to them). And, difficult cases can be litigated in administrative courts.19 State-owned media (and media controlled by state bodies, even if nominally private) determine which preachers and scholars are broadcast. The Ministry of Education is a less obvious but quite significant religious actor—religious education is mandatory in state schools, and the ministry determines the curriculum, the pedagogy, and the instructors, though it relies in part on al-Azhar for guidance. (State religious education has been controversial over the years, though actual changes in what is taught seem to be minor despite the political swings of the past decade.) Family courts apply Islamic law—in its codified form when they can and according to Egyptian judicial understanding of Islamic jurisprudence when the code is silent or ambiguous. And Parliament often wades into religious issues involving legislation (especially family law), doctrinal authority (the extent of deference to al-Azhar), and other matters of policy that touch on the religious sphere.

What this multitude of official religious actors ensures is that matters of religious policy not only create discussion among Egyptians but also lead to cacophony among state institutions—and with the narrowing of the sphere for politics and public debate, arguments about religion are often dominated by state actors.

In those debates, the president’s word is generally final (when it is spoken), and the presence of the security services is often powerfully felt. Debate still takes place, sometimes even obliquely with the president himself and sometimes involving critique of significant religious leaders. Much of the public debate takes place in the media, but perhaps the most notable public forum is the Parliament, which frequently takes up religious issues.

Islamic Reform Initiatives in Parliament Since 2013

While most critical decisions seem to be made within narrow regime circles, some important religious issues are debated in lively parliamentary sessions. The actual legislative record of the Egyptian Parliament is fairly meager, but it has turned into an important forum for airing controversies for two reasons. First, the strong public role of oppositionist Islamist movements over the past generation—and the much more recent rapid rise and fall of Muslim Brotherhood rule—have thrust many religious issues on the parliamentary agenda. Second, while the Parliament contains no real opposition voices, it does contain some who may wish to leave their mark in the religious realm. In the body that sat from 2015 to 2020, some parliamentarians suggested Egypt’s religious establishment was too unresponsive to modern needs and overly invested in outmoded curricula or teachings. Just as significant, some figures who hailed from the religious institutions themselves—including the former president of al-Azhar University, a figure who had been shunted aside amid internal controversies and rivalries—took the lead in suggesting changes.

Two kinds of legislative initiatives have been put forward since 2013 regarding religion in Egyptian politics and public life. The first concern religious structures; the second concern substantive issues—but both are really about who has authority.

On structure, initiatives have thus far taken the form of rumors and trial balloons, most clearly aimed at diminishing the autonomy of religious institutions, especially al-Azhar. Perhaps the most ambitious effort occasioned a flurry of activity in 2017; it would have rescinded much of the institutional autonomy al-Azhar’s leadership won in 2012 had the institution’s leaders not successfully rallied against it in public debates.20 Indeed, none of the initiatives has proceeded very far, and the kinds of changes that are sometimes floated would likely never be heard without the anticipation that they could obtain the support of the country’s senior leadership (including the president himself). But it is unclear whether such initiatives are motivated by the ideological inclinations of the initiator, an initial foray sponsored by a senior leader, or a shot across the bow of bodies that sometimes seem to provoke presidential headaches. Even so, they are likely not merely idiosyncratic projects or exercises of flamboyance by grandstanders given the constricted nature of Egyptian political debates and the attempt by the Parliament’s leadership to control and manage the body.

For instance, in the spring of 2020, a large number of parliamentarians, including the chair of the parliamentary committee overseeing religious affairs, suggested a series of amendments in the 2012 law. These amendments granted the president a stronger role in appointing the grand mufti, allowed experts in a variety of fields—and not just senior members of a few al-Azhar departments—to be included in the Body of Senior Scholars, and provided for some oversight of the grand imam.21 Once again, al-Azhar rallied opposition, with the grand imam joined by the Body of Senior Scholars. Only when the initiative was passed to the Council of State (a judicial body that reviews draft legislation) did legal and constitutional objections lead the Parliament to table the initiative.

But parliamentarians have also waded into the question of who may issue fatwas, with the ostensible goal of combating the phenomenon of extremist, implausible, and misleading religious guidance.22 And while that is indeed a likely purpose, the legislation also wades into turf battles among state institutions that all feel authorized (and so continue) to issue fatwas—Dar al-Ifta, the Ministry of Religious Endowments, al-Azhar’s Body of Senior Scholars, al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Complex, and individual al-Azhar faculty members.

But parliamentarians have also waded into the question of who may issue fatwas, with the ostensible goal of combating the phenomenon of extremist, implausible, and misleading religious guidance.

A second set of legislative initiatives deal with matters of substance, and in particular family law. Based on modern codifications of rulings that stem from Islamic jurisprudence, any debate about family law (including marriage, divorce, custodianship, and inheritance) is inherently religious in nature.

Two rival initiatives—one initiated by al-Azhar with a final proposal produced by its Body of Senior Scholars and another pursued by a few parliamentarians—have been subjects of ongoing controversy.23 Some find the al-Azhar-proposed law excessively conservative on some matters; the distribution of rights and duties among husband and wife is the most frequent subject of dispute. But underlying that argument is one that really involves authority: al-Azhar claims that it is the most reliable source of knowledge on religious questions; that this position is enshrined in the constitution; and that while its opinions do not automatically translate into law, they represent the distillation of the most learned scholarship in the country. Many vocal parliamentarians answer that al-Azhar may develop its own opinions but that Parliament being overly deferential to al-Azhar would be a violation of Parliament’s constitutional position as the legislative branch.

There are two portentous early signs that the Parliament that seated in 2020 is likely to push its role in religious issues further than the preceding Parliament did. First, the cabinet is placing some amendments to the family law immediately on its agenda (after review by the Council of State).24 Second, Sisi used his prerogatives of appointing some members of Parliament to grant Gomaa a seat in the body. Gomaa was a very respected religious scholar whose strident and vitriolic rhetoric against scholars deemed close to the Muslim Brotherhood have made him a controversial figure indeed. He was immediately assigned as chair of the religious affairs committee in the Parliament, a position that gives him significant power to affect the parliamentary agenda. Given his prominence, his past position as grand mufti, his membership on the Body of Senior Scholars, and his close support for the 2013 overthrow of the Brotherhood (where his rhetoric was unrestrained and even violent, as opposed to that of the grand imam), a tug of war seems likely to unfold between the Parliament and the current al-Azhar leadership (perhaps on grounds of personality and politics more than religion).25

At issue, then, is really whose position should prevail when there are differences on religious issues: how constitutional and moral authority relate to each other and how much political leadership can guide, cajole, or command state religious bodies.

At issue, then, is really whose position should prevail when there are differences on religious issues: how constitutional and moral authority relate to each other and how much political leadership can guide, cajole, or command state religious bodies or have its policy preferences reflected in state-sponsored religious guidance. And from the perspective of the religious institutions themselves, the question is how much autonomy they can be allowed on matters they consider within their expertise or even within their own domain (with al-Azhar’s curriculum being a frequent topic of public discussion).

Changes in Islamic Discourse

Not all contest is bureaucratic. Broad doctrinal and jurisprudential matters, especially general ones about how to apply Islamic teachings to questions of contemporary society, have entered public discussion on some occasions. And these debates about Islam are not contained in the Parliament. To a degree that is virtually unprecedented in Egyptian religious life, the head of state himself has weighed in—quite generally, but still forcefully—on doctrinal matters.

Sisi’s first shot across the bow of the Islamic religious establishment came in early January 2015, eight months after he became president. Speaking before a large assembly of religious leaders on the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, Sisi departed from his prepared remarks about the need to base religious discourse on correct doctrine to ask rhetorically how it was possible that incorrect “thinking” among Muslims was terrorizing the world.26 “We are in need of a religious revolution,” he said, adding “you imams are responsible before God.”27 He then questioned whether students in religious institutions were being correctly taught. Returning to his script, he promised the state’s firm support for such institutions, drawing applause from an audience that appeared somewhat stunned.

Sisi’s speech, which he followed with attendance at a mass service a few days later on Coptic Christmas, garnered him huge international coverage and praise.28 Prominent Western commentators went so far as to suggest Sisi deserved the Nobel Peace Prize and asked whether he might be Islam’s Martin Luther.29

Sisi would return to related themes—that reform efforts thus far were inadequate, Islamic thought or discourse needed to be updated or enlightened, and new efforts were needed against ideas used to justify extremism—repeatedly in the coming months and years.30 In fact, since 2015 Sisi has used his annual speech on the Prophet’s birthday several times as an occasion to berate imams and religious scholars, even clashing in more restrained but still quite clear manner with the highly respected grand imam of al-Azhar.31

In a sense, reform is now the project of all religious institutions—but each institution means different things by it and, more fundamentally, has a very different conception of who should be doing the reforming.

While the phrase “reform of religious discourse” was forcefully added into Egyptian political discussion by Sisi, it has been taken up by other institutions with vigor. While that term is associated with the president’s call, al-Azhar’s leaders themselves have often posed as reformers for decades—though ones who do so based on knowledge and renewal while still serving as guardians of the turath (heritage) that the institution has curated in its understanding for over a millennium. In a sense, reform is now the project of all religious institutions—but each institution means different things by it and, more fundamentally, has a very different conception of who should be doing the reforming.

For al-Azhar, reform has been discussed for over a century—and reform means the revival of traditions of scholarship and learning to apply the traditions to modern conditions. That revival must be led by scholars themselves. Those who wish to toss aside the religious heritage of past generations, the entire corpus of Islamic jurisprudence, or even some venerated texts (such as some of the sunna, the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, which are used as a source of law) are not so much reforming as destroying religious discourse.

But not everyone is ready to defer to al-Azhar’s claim to lead and define the terms of reform—and the public feuding with the president has given space to those who challenge al-Azhar’s authority. Indeed, while debate on social and political issues has been sharply contained, arguments about religion are robust. Parliamentarians feel free to weigh in; prominent intellectuals go beyond the president’s direct but very general rebuke to specific attacks on al-Azhar. The minister of religious endowments rushed to use the president’s call to convene a series of conferences and initiatives to “renew religious discourse.”32 A very public debate in January 2020 between the president of Cairo University and the grand imam spilled out beyond the conference where it took place to a series of follow-up interventions that kept the issue in the press for weeks.33 The result can be polarizing, with al-Azhar’s supporters seeing their revered institution as under concerted attack. For their part, al-Azhar’s critics see the institution’s position as implicitly theocratic in its insistence on its own authority.

Sisi’s interventions in the debate about renewal have been episodic and general, but they are also consistent and clear. He does not call for secularism or individual freedom of conscience—heterodox religious groups, such as the so-called Quranists who reject the sunna and claim to rely only on the Quran itself, are still subject to persecution for supposedly threatening state security.34 Instead, Sisi directs the ahl al-din (men of religion) to abandon obscurantist fixation on texts and instead put themselves at the service of state priorities. Sisi has publicly rebuked al-Tayeb as missing the point. “The current dilemma worldwide is not about following the sunnah or not. It is about the wrong understanding of our religion,” the president said publicly in an event where the grand imam had just defended the religious heritage.35 Sisi went on to ask whether those calling for the abandonment of the sunna were more wrong than those who misinterpreted the religion.

Of course, political and religious figures have tussled in the past over policy issues, the autonomy of the religious sphere, and matters of appointment and oversight. But the current tension between the grand imam and the president is new. Nasser placed religious institutions, including al-Azhar, under much greater control and sought their endorsement of policy initiatives (including support for socialist measures consistent with Islamic norms of social justice). But he staked out no religious claims himself. Sadat cultivated a public persona as a-ra’is al-mu’min (the believer-president), tilted official ideology in a religious direction, and, like his predecessor, sought support for specific policies (such as the negotiation of a peace treaty with Israel). But only Sisi has spoken out on matters of general religious discourse and thought, instructed religious scholars on their tasks, and admonished them not only in the name of the Egyptian state or people but also before God. And the struggle over religion—while contained and sometimes muted—has taken on a political tone, and sometimes even a personal one for the president.

The Dynamic Between Sisi and the Grand Imam

Among the more dramatic aspects of Sisi’s attempt to control the religious sphere has been his ongoing public feud with the grand imam of al-Azhar. Al-Tayeb took office in 2010 upon appointment by Mubarak and has shepherded the millennium-old institution through the tumultuous political and religious events that followed. He maintained reasonably good relations with the transitional military council and tense ties with the presidency under Muslim Brotherhood leadership, but later, he stood at Sisi’s side along with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria for the announcement of the July 3, 2013, military coup.

While al-Tayeb is far from a revolutionary or a Brotherhood sympathizer, something has been amiss between him and Sisi since the early days of Sisi’s leadership. Al-Tayeb made several statements in the days following the July coup calling for inclusive national reconciliation, in particular objecting to the brutal force Sisi used to crush the Muslim Brotherhood during mass killings in July and August—going so far as to withdraw briefly from public view (retreating to the southern city of Aswan).36 In the words of one observer, Sisi resented al-Tayeb’s effort at neutrality, which he viewed as “unjustifiably treating a state that fights terrorism as equal to the sponsors of that terrorism.”37

While al-Tayeb is far from a revolutionary or a Brotherhood sympathizer, something has been amiss between him and Sisi since the early days of Sisi’s leadership.

Sisi became president in 2014 and started taking on the religious establishment in January 2015 with the call for renewal of religious discourse noted above. He and al-Tayeb disagreed publicly about several religious and practical issues in 2016 and 2017, including Sisi’s policies that had specific fallout for al-Azhar, such as Egypt’s participation in a controversial Islamic conference held in Chechnya and accommodation of Chinese government requests to deport Uighur students.38

One episode that highlighted the personal nature of the dispute began in January 2017 when Sisi, who has a tendency to focus sharply from time to time on what he views as social ills (for example, obesity), took on the issue of increased divorce rates.39 Calling for eliminating the traditional Islamic practice of verbal divorce, Sisi challenged al-Tayeb publicly, reportedly asking somewhat teasingly, “What do you think, Grand Sheikh? You are giving me a hard time.”40 When al-Azhar senior scholars responded formally that such a change would not comply with Islamic law, a firestorm broke out in the government-controlled media, with some commentators going so far as to demand al-Tayeb’s resignation for daring to oppose Sisi.41 A subsequent attempt to clip the grand imam’s wings through draft legislation that would have limited al-Azhar’s autonomy failed when Parliament backed down in May 2017; an attempt to put similar restrictions into 2019 constitutional amendments was also abandoned after reported concessions by al-Tayeb, leading to the departure of some senior al-Azhar figures deemed too independent.42

Disagreements between Sisi and al-Tayeb over specific issues and broad teachings—and control of al-Azhar—have continued ever since, and in mid-2020, they played out in Parliament as well. At an international conference early in the year, al-Tayeb once again publicly rejected efforts to revise religious discourse in the manner Sisi and his supporters were asking for, by clashing with Cairo University President Mohamed Othman Elkhosht, who was reported to be carrying Sisi’s water.43 More media attacks on al-Tayeb from prominent Sisi supporters followed.44 Then in July 2020, the regime-dominated Parliament gave initial approval to a bill that would have taken the mufti’s office, Dar al-Ifta, out of the control of al-Azhar and put it more clearly under presidential authority.45 Al-Tayeb once again resisted this challenge to his authority, demanding an opportunity to address deputies before a final vote. In late August, the Parliament postponed further action on the bill until the next assembly was seated in late 2020, as discussed above.46

Controlling the Egyptian State

Sisi presents his initiatives regarding religion in Egyptian politics and public life as being about modernity, interfaith relations, and opposing extremism, but in the end, they might be fundamentally about who wields authority—and a sense that al-Azhar and the religious establishment as a whole should accept his leadership.

Sisi presents his initiatives regarding religion in Egyptian politics and public life as being about modernity, interfaith relations, and opposing extremism, but in the end, they might be fundamentally about who wields authority.

Since Sisi took effective control of Egypt in the July 2013 coup and later became president in May 2014, he has brought government institutions to heel to a remarkable extent. It is not surprising that Sisi has exerted far more control than his democratically elected (and later deposed) predecessor Morsi, but Sisi has been far more controlling than Mubarak, who was president from 1981 until the 2011 uprising. While Mubarak’s rule was far from democratic, some government institutions—such as the judiciary, Parliament, and diplomatic corps—cultivated pride in their competence as well as their heritage as some of the oldest institutions in the Middle East. Staffed by the elite, they enjoyed some limited margin of independence, for example, in determining senior appointments and observing their own internal procedures.47

Under Sisi, those institutions have been taken down a peg, and in some cases more than just a peg. The judiciary, previously considered the branch of government with the most integrity and public respect, has been hit hard. Constitutional amendments in 2019, followed by implementing legislation, restructured judicial bodies in ways that increased presidential control over senior appointments—a process one unnamed judicial source described as “constitutionalizing dictatorship.”48 Another of Sisi’s major takedowns was that of Central Auditing Organization head Hesham Geneina, fired in 2016 and then imprisoned in 2018 for supposedly spreading false news after he claimed to possess evidence of corruption by senior leaders.49

The Parliament, a politicized but occasionally feisty body that had opposition representation in most of its iterations under Mubarak, is allowed only to color within the margins sketched by government policy. The judiciary dissolved the first freely elected Parliament as unconstitutional in 2012, and after Sisi took control the next year, successive steps to outlaw or otherwise exclude opposition parties (as well as electoral law changes) ensured that only Sisi supporters would serve as parliamentary deputies.50 Parliamentary elections in late 2020, which excluded even the few independent deputies from the assembly elected in 2015, brought in a new pro-regime party to organize more effectively those elected. The elections also filled a recently re-instituted and partially appointed upper house with loyalists, completing Sisi’s control of the legislative branch.

Even Egypt’s diplomatic corps—always loyal to the state but used to enjoying a margin of independence allowed to the intelligentsia—has been humbled under Sisi. A series of purges began in 2014, removing many prominent diplomats suspected of sympathies with the 2011 uprising; for example, then foreign minister Nabil Fahmy resigned after only one year in the job after he reportedly refused to cooperate in politically motivated investigations, reassignments, and dismissals.51

In Egypt’s public and private universities, the extension of executive control has become overt and crude after the failure of the youth-led 2011 uprising; tenured faculty may be fired for political activity and the state intelligence services have formal oversight over everyday matters, such as whether professors may speak at conferences abroad or invite foreign lecturers to campus.52

Another notable aspect of Sisi’s control of government institutions is that it is more overtly military in nature compared to the more political control of his predecessors. Sisi deploys military officers with formal or informal authority over civilians and has introduced programs to indoctrinate civilian bureaucrats about the necessity of military control. Military officers or retired officers have long occupied influential positions throughout the Egyptian system from the level of national ministries down to local governments, but the trend has been deepened and formalized under Sisi.53 An amendment passed in July 2020 mandated, for example, that the minister of defense assign a military adviser to each provincial governor to ensure that military priorities are implemented.54 Part of the adviser’s duties is to oversee instruction in military affairs for secondary school and university students—part of a broad web of national security indoctrination, often taught by military officers, for young professionals as well as senior civilian bureaucrats such as judges.55 The religious realm has not been exempt from this effort, with the Ministry of Religious Affairs sending some of its personnel to receive training.

Al-Tayeb’s Tenacity

Sisi’s efforts to control the Islamic establishment are far from remarkable; what is remarkable about the Sisi-al-Tayeb sparring is the fact that Sisi has not won every round. Sisi has cut into al-Tayeb’s authority, bringing the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Dar al-Ifta ever closer to the presidency rather than to al-Azhar (without any legal or formal change) and forcing al-Tayeb to dismiss several close associates.56 Al-Tayeb has so far successfully resisted, however, in accepting changes to interpretations of Islamic law or teachings—and more to the point, he has kept his job despite Sisi’s well-known desire to replace him with a more malleable grand imam.

Al-Tayeb has so far successfully resisted, however, in accepting changes to interpretations of Islamic law or teachings—and more to the point, he has kept his job despite Sisi’s well-known desire to replace him with a more malleable grand imam.

Al-Tayeb has picked his battles. The traditional deference that many Sunni scholars show to the ruler and indeed to all state bodies—the principle of wali al-amr—is based on an understanding that however imperfect political authorities might be, they are responsible for protecting the social order in a manner that makes it possible for believers to live righteous lives.57 But when state officials begin to tread on doctrinal turf or seek to curb the autonomy of religious institutions, al-Tayeb has pushed back.

Why has al-Tayeb been relatively successful in resisting Sisi to date? He appears to have four sources of resilience: legal, institutional, personal, and international. First, the Transitional Military Council that ruled the country after Mubarak passed a decree in January 2012 that strengthened al-Azhar’s independence in several ways, including by giving the grand imam lifetime tenure.58 Although that step was taken out of fear of Muslim Brotherhood dominance, it is not an easy one to undo partly due to the second factor: the combination of widespread popular support for al-Azhar, its symbolic role blending religious authority with national pride, and its nationwide network of schools and alumni give it a loyal following that few other state institutions can match. Moreover, al-Tayeb personally has managed to preserve a modicum of integrity while navigating tumultuous political and religious conditions for a decade; his language, even when sharp, has been respectful and seemingly above partisanship.

A final factor allowing al-Tayeb to resist Sisi’s control is the grand imam’s international prominence. In the past two decades, as many international political leaders were eager to find credible, prominent Muslim figures to speak out in various ways, al-Tayeb has found two particular champions: Roman Catholic Pope Francis and the United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ).

Pope Francis first met al-Tayeb in May 2016, after nearly a decade of tense relations between his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI and al-Azhar.59 Instead, Pope Francis and al-Tayeb have developed a warm friendship and collaboration, resulting in many meetings, exchanges, and major initiatives, such as a joint declaration on “human fraternity” in April 2019.60 When Pope Francis launched his new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” in October 2020, he cited his joint declaration with al-Tayeb, who in turn praised the new encyclical.61

The United Arab Emirates and MBZ have encouraged the joint Vatican-al-Azhar activities—for example, by hosting the launch of the 2019 joint declaration—and have otherwise cultivated warm ties with al-Tayeb since at least 2013. Shortly before the July 2013 coup against Morsi, al-Tayeb traveled to the UAE to receive a major award, provoking criticism from pro-Brotherhood circles in Egypt.62 Since then, Emirati leaders and particularly MBZ (who is strongly focused on efforts to stamp out the Muslim Brotherhood regionwide) have showered al-Tayeb and al-Azhar with attention, praise, and funding.63 Apparently in return, al-Tayeb has provided religious approval not only for MBZ’s campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood but for other UAE initiatives as well, such as the boycott of Qatar that began in 2017.64

There are recent indications of some limits, however, to how far al-Tayeb is willing to go to please his Emirati patrons. As of this writing, al-Tayeb had not reacted publicly to the UAE’s October 2020 normalization of relations with Israel, and there are rumors that this Emirati move has disrupted the relationship.65 In addition, al-Tayeb reportedly resisted pressure to issue a statement calling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization after Saudi and Emirati clerics did so in November 2020 (in an apparent last-ditch effort to encourage former U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration to declare the group a foreign terrorist organization before Trump left office).66

MBZ and Pope Francis appear to have had somewhat different motivations for cultivating al-Tayeb—for example, the pope is probably more concerned about Muslim-Christian relations in Europe and the fate of Christian communities within the Middle East rather than the UAE’s potential stake in broad ideological or regional rivalries in the Middle East—but the effect on al-Tayeb’s fortunes in Egypt has been similar. Having an enormously popular international figure like the pope and a major diplomatic and financial backer of Egypt like MBZ in al-Tayeb’s corner has undoubtedly strengthened his hold on his office. When Sisi mandated that senior officials obtain his permission before traveling abroad in January 2019, it appeared to be aimed at least in part at al-Tayeb.67

Impact: Are Sisi’s Religious Reforms Changing Hearts and Minds?

Sisi’s religious reforms have served his own political agenda: putting all institutions under his control, eliminating any residual influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, and cultivating his image in the West as the hoped-for Islamic reformer. The question remains, however, as to whether the steps taken so far have diminished radicalization of youth in the country or materially changed the way Egyptian Muslims practice their faith.

It is difficult to ascertain whether attempts to reform Islamic discourse or control religious institutions have helped to address Egypt’s persistent problem with extremists turning to violence. Simply looking at the numbers, violent attacks related to Islamic extremism have gone up and down since Sisi has taken control; they reached a particular peak of lethality in 2017–2018 but were still going on as of 2021 and seemed to vary largely due to factors such as the shifting fortunes of the Islamic State.68

While it is impossible to know whether Sisi’s attempted reforms have turned Egyptians’ hearts and minds away from extremism, other factors known to contribute to extremism have not only continued but increased in recent years. Human rights abuses—including detention of tens of thousands of youth in poor conditions, forced disappearance and lengthy pretrial detention, unfair trials, torture, and sexual abuse—have continued since 2013 and in some ways gotten worse over time.69 Moreover, socioeconomic conditions that contribute to radicalization, such as high poverty and youth unemployment, have deteriorated in the last five years amid government austerity measures.70

While it is impossible to know whether Sisi’s attempted reforms have turned Egyptians’ hearts and minds away from extremism, other factors known to contribute to extremism have not only continued but increased in recent years.

Religion remains an important part of Egyptian public life, and Egyptians describe themselves as “religious” to a high degree, in comparative terms according to public opinion polling.71 Indeed, religious identity and support for general terms like sharia, or Islamic law, have been high for some time. There are signs that religious observance is beginning to fall—not precipitously, but in a manner that causes concern in official religious circles.72 Indeed, a general regional trend of gradual declines in reported levels of religiosity and trust in religious leaders is evidenced in Egypt.73 While religious officials and political leaders routinely decry atheism, the real threat (at least for religious leaders) lies less in repudiation of religion than the possibility of creeping irrelevance. A younger generation of Egyptians is simply less inclined than their elders to embrace regular religious practice such as prayer. For instance, according to the Arab Barometer, 53 percent of Egyptians over fifty respond that they always perform the dawn prayer; only 8 percent of those between eighteen and twenty-nine report doing so. A similar but slightly smaller gap exists over the practice of reading or listening to the Quran.74 If there is a signal from the elite, it might actually be encouraging a subtle but definite diminished public role for religion, with women’s head covering, for instance, being seen in some circles as politically incorrect.75 If personal practice might be growing lax in some circles, though, conservative and repressive social practices associated with military culture persist in others.76

But general attitudes toward Islam are now operating in a different political and social context, one that causes some concern in official religious circles. The closure of independent religious spaces (with nongovernmental organizations, mosques, and other locations more tightly monitored) means that when Egyptians hear about religion in public, they generally hear official voices, even if some of those voices try to show some autonomy from the regime. The religious revival that took place since the 1970s had both very public and more private aspects, but personal observance, informal groupings, and social activity provided much of the energy. The changes imposed by the regime have affected daily lives, for example by denying Egyptians access to thousands of independent mosques, now shuttered, and cutting off services from hundreds of Islamic charitable institutions accused of connections to the Muslim Brotherhood.77 Zakat, one of Islam’s five pillars, has also come under tighter official oversight than before as the regime tries to redirect giving toward the state and donors become allergic to politicized giving.78 The shift is not absolute—some autonomous spaces for religious inquiry and practice remain in Egypt—but the levels of monitoring and control have increased markedly, with constricting effects on religious activity in Egyptian society.79

Official Islamic institutions cannot always fill the gap, and the close association of some with the regime and its policies can undercut their credibility. Al-Azhar can bring some standardization to public Islam in Egypt, but homogenizing all forms of religion in the country is a task that is likely beyond al-Azhar’s ability and probably beyond its ambition, except in the very loose sense of promoting beliefs and practices that seem politically safer. Presidential efforts to toe a specific security-oriented line—or even a broad presidential embrace of a vaguely defined “renewal”—are not likely to do much more than steer some official manifestations of religion. In the end, it seems unlikely that Sisi’s attempt to fully control religious institutions and discourse will bring about any lasting change in the country’s Islamic culture or affect the possibility that dissent, including violence, might again take on a religious tinge in the future.


The authors would like to thank H.A. Hellyer and Mohamed Mandour for comments on this paper as well as James C. Gaither Junior Fellow Ian Wallace for research assistance.

About the Authors

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, a distinguished scholar, and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.

Michele Dunne is the director and a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Middle East Program, where her research focuses on political and economic change in Arab countries, particularly Egypt, as well as U.S. policy in the Middle East.


1 See, for instance, “Sisi Calls for Renewing Religious Discourse Based on True Understanding of Islam,” Egyptian State Information Service, December 8, 2016,

2 Nathan J. Brown, “Post-Revolutionary al-Azhar,Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2011,

3 “Al-Azhar #al-sharif” [#Holy Azhar] (Arabic), video posted on Facebook by al-Azhar al-Sharif, April 1, 2020,

4 “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces Decree—Law No. 13 of 2012 Amending Some Provisions of Law No. 103 of 1961 Regarding the Reorganization of al-Azhar and the Bodies It Includes” (Arabic),,

5 Dar al-Ifta,

6 Jacob Skovgaard-Petersen, “Defining Islam for the Egyptian State: Muftis and Fatwas of the Dār al-Iftā,” Brill, October 1, 1997,

7 Shawqi Ibrahim Allam, “What Is the Ruling on Buying and Selling in the Electronic Currency Called Bitcoin?” (Arabic), Dar al-Ifta. December 28, 2017,

8 Noha El-Hennawy, “Al-Azhar Reform Draft Law Stirs Controversy,” Egypt Independent, January 9, 2012,

9 Ali Gomaa, “Guestview: Negotiating Change in the Islamic Religious Establishment,” Reuters, February 21, 2013,; and “Egypt’s New Grand Mufti Elected for First Time Ever,” Ahram Online, February 11, 2013,

10 Saeed Hijazi, Issa Hijazi, and Abdel Wahab, “The Fate of 120,000 Workers After the Success of the "Unified Call to Prayer" ... and the "Awqaf" Deny the Dismissal” (Arabic), El Watan News, April 2, 2019,

11 Miroslav Melčák, “The Development of Diwan al-Awqaf in Egypt in the 19th Century: Regulations of 1837 and 1851,” Archiv Orientální, January 2010,

12 Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, “Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt,” Columbia University Press, October 2002.

13 Saeed Hijazi, Issa Hijazi, and Abdel Wahab, “Suspension From Work and Referral for Investigation: The Ministry of Endowments’ Weapon Against Transgressive Imams” (Arabic), El Watan News, October 28, 2019,; and Ahmed Megahid, “Authorities Remove and Ban Ten Muslim Brotherhood’s Preachers From Mosques,” The Arab Weekly, December 1, 2019,

14 Reuters Staff, “Egypt Orders Muslim Preachers to Deliver Identical Weekly Sermon,” Reuters, July 13, 2016,

15 Saeed Hijazi, Issa Hijazi, and Abdel Wahab, “The ‘Awqaf’ Proposes to Record the Friday Sermon With Sound and Image . . . Angering the Imams” (Arabic), El Watan News, October 28, 2019,

16 Ahmed Kassab, “Awqaf Warns: There Is No Friday Prayer on the Roads or Roofs of Buildings, and We Will Punish Violators” (Arabic), Al-Shorouk, April 2, 2020,

17 “Arab Republic of Egypt, Ministry of Endowments,” March 20, 2020,

18 Ahmad Al-Buhairi, “The Minister of Endowments Visits the Sheikh of Al-Azhar: Calls for Him to Continue to Be Healthy and Well” (Arabic), Al-Masry Al-Youm, September 28, 2019,

19 Mona Oraby, “Authorizing Religious Conversion in Administrative Courts: Law, Rights, and Secular Indeterminacy,” New Diversities Vol. 17, No. 1, 2015,

20 Nathan J. Brown and Mariam Ghanem, “The Battle Over Al-Azhar,” Diwan (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 31, 2017,

21 Ismail al-Ashwal, “Exclusive, the Draft Amendment to al-Azhar Law Includes Accountability for the ‘Grand Imam’” (Arabic), Al Shorouk,

22 Shahira Amin, “Egypt’s Al-Azhar in Dispute With Government Over Fatwa Authority,” Al-Monitor, July 24, 2020,

23 Shaima Abdel Hadi, “Al-Azhar Lays Down 10 Articles That Establish Family Building in the Draft Personal Status Law” (Arabic), Ahram, October 26, 2019,; and Nathan J. Brown, “When the Procedural Is Political,” Diwan (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 12, 2019,

24 Muhammad Sami, “Creation of Articles Related to Proof of Lineage: Governmental Sources Reveal the Details of the Draft Personal Status Law” (Arabic), Masrawy, January 14, 2021,

25 Amr Osman, “Religion and Politics in Post-Coup Egypt,” Open Democracy, November 28, 2013,

26 “Al-Nahar News Speech of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi at the Celebration of the Prophet’s Birthday” (Arabic), Al-Nahar Al-Youm, January 1, 2015,

27 Ibid.

28 Dana Ford, Salma Abdelaziz, and Ian Lee, “Egypt’s President Calls for a ‘Religious Revolution,’” CNN, January 6, 2015,; and Michele Dunne and Katie Bentivoglio, “Is Sisi Islam’s Martin Luther?” Diwan (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 16, 2015,

29 “Will: Egypt’s al-Sisi Deserves Nobel Peace Prize for Speech on Islam,” Real Clear Politics (blog), January 11, 2015,; Peter Smith, “Islam’s Martin Luther?” Quadrant, January 7, 2015,

30 “Sisi’s Monthly Speech Summed Up: The 10 Most Important Issues Addressed,” Mada Masr, May 12, 2015,; Ahmed al-Buhairi and Mohsen Semeika, “El-Sisi: Heritage Must Be Re-read to Fit the Times” (Arabic), Al-Masry Al-Youm,; and Marina Nabil, “Al-Sisi: Correcting the Religious Discourse Is Neither a Luxury Nor a Comfort and It Will Not Affect Norms” (Arabic), Al Shorouk, December 8, 2016,

31 “The Prophet's Birthday: Sisi's Speech and His Commentary on the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Provoke Mixed Reactions About Its Meanings” (Arabic), BBC Arabic, November 8, 2019,

32 See, for instance “Minister of Awqaf: The Tools of Religious Discourse Must Improve, Not Corrupt,” Biladna al-Yawm, May 25, 2015,

33 “A Verbal Battle Between Ahmed Al-Tayyib, Sheikh of Al-Azhar, and Dr. Mohamed El-Khasht, President of Cairo University” (Arabic), Sada Elbalad, January 28, 2020,; and “Urgent: Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyib Responds to the President of Cairo University Al-Khasht: I Would Have Liked Your Words to Be Well Thought Out” (Arabic), Youtube, posted by Dr. Abdullah Rushdie, January 28, 2020,

34 Ahmed Salama, “Renewed Detention of Blogger ‘Al Qurani’ Reda Abdul Rahman for 15 Days Pending Investigation” (Arabic), Daaarb News. January 14, 2021,

35 Noha El-Tawil, “A Cleric Must Have a Comprehensive Approach: President Sisi,” Egypt Today, November 19, 2018,

36 Mai Shams el-Din, “Al-Azhar Post-June 30: An Ongoing Dispute Interrupted by a Brief Alliance,” Mada Masr, June 30, 2017,; and “Azhar Grand Sheikh Says He Was Informed About Sit-in Dispersal Through Media,” Al-Masry Al-Youm via Egypt Independent, August 14, 2013,

37 Mai Shams el-Din, “Al-Azhar Post-June 30: An Ongoing Dispute Interrupted by a Brief Alliance,” Mada Masr, June 30, 2017,

38 Mohamed Saied, “Is Egypt-Saudi Love Affair on the Rocks?” Al-Monitor, September 13, 2016,; and Lisa Barrington, “Egypt Detains Chinese Uighur Students, Who Fear Return to China: Rights Group,” Reuters, July 7, 2017,

39 Amina Ismail and Lena Masri, “Lectured by Sisi on Body Weight, Egyptians Respond With Jokes,” Reuters, December 19, 2018,

40 Mai Shams el-Din, “Al-Azhar Post-June 30: An Ongoing Dispute Interrupted by a Brief Alliance.”

41 Mohammed Al-Baz, “Mohammad Al-Baz Writes . . . Why Does the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Not Resign?” (Arabic), Dostor, January 25, 2017,

42 Nathan J. Brown and Mariam Ghanem, “The Battle Over Al-Azhar”; and Asmahan Soliman, “How Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Survived the Constitutional Amendments,” Mada Masr, April 11, 2019,

43 Muhammed Nafih Wafy, “Egypt’s Eternal Conundrum—Reforming Religious Thought,” Qantara, July 14, 2020,

44 Dandarawi El Hawary,”Clerics in Egypt Set Themselves Up as Prophets and Formed a Special Class Above the People!” (Arabic), Al-Youm7, February 3, 2020,

45 Shahira Amin, “Egypt’s Al-Azhar in Dispute With Government Over Fatwa Authority,” Al-Monitor, July 24, 2020,

46 Abdullah Abu Deif, “The Sheikh of Al-Azhar Requests Attending the Plenary Session of the House of Representatives to Explain the Vision of Rejecting the Fatwa Bill” (Arabic), Cairo 24, August 23, 2020,

47 Nathan J. Brown, “Correcting the ‘Corrective Revolution,’” Diwan (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 27, 2019,

48 “Judicial Officials: Constitutional Amendments Final Battleground in Struggle for Judicial Independence,” Mada Masr, February 21, 2019,; and Rana Mamdouh, “Parliament Approves Laws Allowing Sisi to Select Judicial Heads, Stalemate Continues Over Council of Judicial Bodies,” Mada Masr, June 24, 2019,

49 Declan Walsh, “Egyptian Military Court Sentences Sisi Critic to 5 Years in Prison,” New York Times, April 24, 2018,

50 Lin Noueihed, “Egypt Court Dissolves Muslim Brotherhood's Political Wing,” Reuters, August 10, 2014,; Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy, “Egypt’s Secular Political Parties: A Struggle for Identity and Independence,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 31, 2017,; and Jan Claudius Völkel, “Sidelined by Design: Egypt’s Parliament in Transition,” The Journal of North African Studies 22:4, 595–619, March 8, 2017,

51 Asmahan Soliman, “Behind the Curtains of the Foreign Ministry: Security Apparatuses Play for Control,” Mada Masr, May 22, 2017,

52 Amy Austin Holmes and Sahar Aziz, “Egypt’s Lost Academic Freedom,” Sada (blog), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 24, 2019,

53 Yezid Sayigh, “Mapping the Informal Military Economy: The Officers’ Republic,” Malcom H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, November 18, 2019,

54 “Law No. 165 of 2020 Amending Some Provisions of Law No. 55 of 1968 Regarding Popular Defense Organizations and Law No. 46 of 1973 Regarding Military Education in the Secondary and Higher Education Stages,” July 27, 2020,; and “Appointing Military Advisers to Oversee Civil Life in Egypt Stirs Anger,” Al-Monitor, August 9, 2020,

55 Nathan J. Brown and Mark Berlin, “Steering the Wide Egyptian State: Ideology or Administration?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 28, 2020,; and Ahmed Youness, “Egyptian Judges Forced Into Military Education Classes,” Al-Monitor, November 9, 2017,

56 Shahira Amin, “Egypt’s Al-Azhar in Dispute With Government Over Fatwa Authority,” Al-Monitor, July 24, 2020,; and Hossam Rabie, “Al-Azhar’s Imam Faces Hostile Media Campaign,” Al-Monitor, February 27, 2020,

57 Nathan J. Brown, “Who or What Is the Wali al-Amr: The Unposed Question,” Onati International Institute for Sociology of Law, March 1, 2019,,without%20that%20transformation%20drawing%20notice.

58 Nathan J. Brown, “What Are So Many Upset About al-Azhar?” Atlantic Council, January 30, 2012,

59 Junno Arocho Esteves, “‘The Meeting Is the Message,’ Pope Tells Head of al-Azhar,” National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 2016,

60 “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together: Full Text,” Vatican News, February 4, 2019,

61 Pope Francis, “Fratelli Tutti,” Vatican, October 3, 2020,; and “Grand Imam: ‘Pope Francis Restores to Humanity Its Consciousness,” Vatican News, October 5, 2020,

62 “Cultural Personality of the Year 2013: Dr. Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad Al Tayyib,” Sheikh Zayed Book Award, 2013,; Mohamed Ragheb, “WWW World,” Daily News Egypt, April 8, 2006.

63 Zakaria Mohieddin, “Mohammed bin Zayed and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar Stress the Importance of Global Solidarity and Cooperation in Facing the Spread of the Coronavirus,” WAM, March 30, 2020,; and “Grand Imam of Al Azhar Announces UAE Humanitarian Award Will Be Donated to Charity,” The National, August 2019,

64 “Al-Azhar Supports Severing Relations With Qatar,” Al-Masry Al-Youm via Egypt Independent, June 7, 2017,

65 “Because of Normalization . . . a Silent Crisis Between the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Emirates,” The New Khalij News, November 30, 2020,

66 “Sources: Emirati Pressure on the Sheikh of Al-Azhar to Issue an Anti-Brotherhood Statement Failed,” The New Khalij News, November 26, 2020,

67 Amira Sayed Ahmed, “Egypt’s Senior Officials Cannot Travel Without President’s Permission,” Al-Monitor, January 29, 2019,

68 “Five Years of Egypt’s War on Terror,” The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, May 15, 2015,; and Ashraf Sweilam, “Egyptian Officials: Roadside Bombing in Sinai Kills 2 Police,” AP News, January 1, 2021,

69 “Regime Repression and Youth Radicalization in Egypt,” Heinrich Boll Stiftung, March 1, 2017,; and “Between ISIS and Egypt’s Counter-Terrorism Measures: Children Are Radicalized, Exploited, and Taken as ‘Hostages’,” The Belady Center for Rights and Freedoms, February 3, 2020,

70 Clara-Auguste Süß, and Ahmad Noor Aakhunzzada, “The Socioeconomic Dimension of Islamist Radicalization in Egypt and Tunisia,” Peace Research Institute Frankfurt and Leibniz-Institut Hesseiche Stifung Friedens-und Konfliktforschung, February 2019,

71 “How Religious Commitment Varies by Country Among People of All Ages,” Pew Research Center, June 13, 2018,

72 Namen Karl-Thomas Habtom, “Is the MENA Region Becoming Less Religious? An Interview With Michael Robbins,” Arab Barometer, April 6, 2020,

73 “Arabs Are Losing Faith in Religious Parties and Leaders,” Economist, December 5, 2019,

74 “Data Analysis Tool,” Arab Barometer,

75 “Haughty About the Hijab,” Economist, August 27, 2015,

76 Neela Ghoshal, “More Arrests in Egypt’s LGBT Crackdown, but No International Outcry,” Human Rights Watch, January 22, 2018,

77 Nicholas Linn and Emily Crane Linn, “Egypt’s War on Charity,” Foreign Policy, January 29, 2015,

78 Amira Mittermaier, “Islamic Charity as (Non)Political in Contemporary Egypt,” Islamic Law and Society Vol. 27 Issue 1–2, February 20, 2020,

79 See Amr Abdulrahman, “The End of Islamic Revivalism? Independent Religious Education After 2011: Characteristics, Ambiguities and Future Trajectories,” American University in Cairo Law and Society Research Unit, September 2019,