The ousting of President Mohamed Morsi following the popularly supported military intervention in Egypt once again demonstrates the crisis of representative democracy. It also reminds us that in places where state traditions heavily draw on authoritarianism, the politics of binaries prevail.

When political action is limited to the narrow scope of us versus them, politics becomes a struggle to capture state power. Revolutionaries who critique this power structure and aim to transform it often find themselves stuck in the midst of these struggles.

In this context, the recent military intervention in Egypt has created a heated debate about whether or not these events constitute a coup d’état. In the last week, policy analysts and scholars have coined new terms such as “revocouption” and “corrective coup” to highlight the fact that the military intervention was supported by popular demand. A large majority of demonstrators adamantly and rightfully insist that the ousting of Morsi was a victory for the people, which cannot be attributed to any specific state institution.

Egyptians rose up against Morsi because he failed to deliver on the demands of the revolution. He forcefully promoted divisions within society by inciting hatred and violence toward Christians, women, and Shi’a Muslims. Under his leadership, the Muslim Brotherhood took every opportunity to capture various state institutions.

The Muslim Brotherhood tried hard to establish a civil authoritarianism while relying on the legitimacy of the ballot box. Under Morsi’s leadership, revolutionary demands to build an inclusive and democratic Egypt became futile. As such, Morsi’s attempt to claim legitimacy during his last speech as president did not resonate with many demonstrators, who have been crying out for an end to authoritarianism in Egypt since January 2011.

In this context, the meaning and implications of the recent military intervention for state authoritarianism in Egypt must be taken seriously.

State authoritarianism in the country began with the 1952 coup by the Free Officers Movement. Although the Egyptian military has been at the forefront of politics since then, authoritarianism has become entrenched within a network of institutions that includes, but is not limited to the military.

In fact, the authoritarian tradition finds its most striking manifestation in the informal alliance between the military, Al-Azhar, and the Coptic Church, which President Gamal Abdel Nasser institutionalized.

Since Nasser’s seizure of power in 1954, this alliance has been the governing matrix in Egypt. In this context, the recent military intervention on July 3 is extremely worrisome because it is likely to strengthen the hegemony of this triad. The persistence of Egypt’s revolutionary forces in standing against authoritarianism is even more important at this crucial moment.

Religious Institutions as Part of State Authoritarianism

While the military-industry complex is the hegemonic actor in Egypt’s politics and economy, since Nasser came to power, Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church have held the dominant hand in the social realm.

Nasser curtailed both the Muslim Brotherhood and the ulema and passed the 1961 law that removed the independence of Al-Azhar yielding the institution to state power. For instance, local imams became an important mobilizing force of Nasser’s national project. Similarly, the Coptic Church gained control over community affairs as Nasser diminished the role of the community lay councils (Al-Majlis Al-Milli).

This governing alliance has ensured that religion remains central to people’s lives as a social rather than political force. Over the years, it has made it difficult to create a direct relationship between the state and its citizens.

Additionally, it has meant that religious institutions have been empowered at the expense of other civil actors and groups. At the same time, over the last three decades this alliance has ensured a rather peaceful, albeit increasingly volatile, co-existence between Egypt’s two largest religious communities: Sunni Muslims and Coptic Christians.

Religion in Egypt is an important part of everyday life and social relations. The Egyptian state is not, however, a religious (i.e. Islamic) state as the legal system is based primarily on the French civil code. The state does not adopt a dogmatic and legalistic interpretation of Islamic principles except in the realm of personal status matters, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, where the principles of shari’a apply.

This implies certain social restrictions, however, including the impossibility of marriage between a Christian man and a Muslim woman and the difficulty in inheriting assets from family members of different religions. This system also places certain restrictions on the inheritance rights of female children.

As a result, the private realm of the family is under state control in ways that ensure the piety of Egyptian society. Moreover, such control over the family realm turns confessional communities into the primary location of belonging and identity. It is, as such, no surprise that Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church are the two most important institutions helping the state to control the devotional nature of Egyptian society, which is first and foremost, embedded in the realm of the family.

Contesting Authority over Piety

Among other things, the people’s call for the army to oust Morsi and the military’s subsequent siege of the Muslim Brotherhood is another manifestation of the struggle for authority over piety in Egypt. Over the past year, the Muslim Brotherhood has tried to claim this authority by challenging the power of the country’s existing religious institutions.

For these reasons, it is incorrect to describe the June 30 events through the lens of a “secular” army unseating Islamists. An acute form of secularism that implies a strict separation between religion and state and the complete privatization of religion has never been dominant in Egypt.

In this respect, it is significant that General Abdel Fatah El-Sissi appeared on July 3 with both the grand imam of Al-Azhar and the Coptic Pope to announce the transitional roadmap.

This appearance signaled to the crowds and the international audience that the military intervention not only had popular support, but also had the endorsement of the two major religious institutions in Egypt.

All three institutions share a male dominated, authoritarian culture that reflects how the Egyptian state has historically governed the country. By appearing together on the occasion of Morsi’s ouster, the leader of these three institutions confirmed the strong role this authoritarian and patriarchal tradition continues to play in Egypt’s unfolding revolution.

The success of the revolution very much lies in its ability to stand against all forms of power and oppression, no matter from where they may come. Egyptian protesters emphasized this with dignity and courage when they demonstrated in the millions against Mubarak in January 2011 and then against Morsi in June 2013.

Nevertheless, well-entrenched state traditions of authoritarianism continue to limit the revolution’s emancipatory potential.

The Revolution Takes on the Military-Al Azhar-Coptic Church?

The entrenched nature of this authoritarianism was reflected in recent opposition to Egypt’s new interim constitution by various religious institutions. The issues raised by these groups stemmed first and foremost from their anxiety about losing authority and political power in the country.

For instance, the Coptic Church criticized the removal of an article that was present in the now suspended constitution, which granted non-Muslim communities the right to apply their own canonical laws in personal status matters. Salafis also rejected the new declaration because it eliminated Al-Azhar’s role as a referee in matters relating to Islamic shari’ a.

At the moment, however, there are several ways to ensure that the authoritarian triad is not allowed to continue. The revolutionary youth who launched the Tamarod movement, which led to Morsi’s ouster, as well as the National Salvation Front (NSF), Egypt’s leading civil opposition group, are included in the transitional roadmap. These groups present the best opportunity for preventing the normalization of the triad’s power over Egyptian society.

To succeed, these groups must engage in representative democracy, while at the same time continuing to express their demands on the street in ways that expand the political spectrum beyond narrow binaries of us versus them. Although the leaderless nature of the revolution since January 2011 certainly empowered direct over representative forms, direct democracy still cannot exist without its representative variant.

The Salafist Al-Nour Party’s strong rejection of attempts to appoint Mohamed El-Baradei of the NSF and Ziad Bahaaeddin to the position of interim prime minister highlights the ongoing influence of party politics in maintaining state authoritarianism in Egypt.


Perhaps now more than ever, it is pressing that the revolutionary civil oppositional groups, including political parties, social movements, and non-governmental organizations, stand together to speak out against the state’s authoritarian traditions.

There are already developments in this direction. For instance, Tamarod has objected to the new constitutional declaration on the grounds that it, “lays the foundation of a new dictatorship.” The NSF also recently called for revolutionaries to be included in the new cabinet, and demanded that the new constitutional declaration be amended.

These are important steps to building a synergy between direct and indirect forms of democracy to ensure that the people’s will is actually reflected in the new governing structures, and to dismantle the alliance between the military and religious institutions in Egypt.



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  • You have completely misquoted Paul Sedra. Nasser didn’t just diminish the role of the laymens council; he dissolved it. Sadat reinstated it and this is one small factor out of a larger calculation in surveying Church-state-communal relations. A completely wrong and ahistoricized attempt. If you want someone to read on your opinion on Al Azhar and what Nasser did to it, though its not my area, read Ibrahim Houdaiby in Cairo Review who will categorically explain and demonstrate how Nasser weakened Al Azhar. I daresay you seem to have gotten the completely opposite picture of what most historians seem to be saying.Not surprising to see on Muftah

  • Karim, you are right about the importance of stressing explicitly the dissolution of the lay council by Nasser, which in fact supports my argument in the article about the alliance of the state with the Church. And yes, alliances and institutions do not remain stable over time, and the temporary rupture in the alliance with the Church during Sadat’s rule is a good example. Nevertheless, disregarding certain path dependencies (and why those dependencies are there is another question that requires careful analysis) might risk missing historical patterns that shed light on contemporary events.

    Concerning your point on Al-Azhar, I stress in the article that the 1961 law significantly weakened the independence of Al-Azhar by yielding it to state power. However, weakening its autonomy happened simultaneously by utilizing the influence of the institution over society to promote the state’s certain causes. A good example of the still visible role played by religion in politics was the mobilization of local imams in spreading Nasser’s socialist national project especially in rural areas (and historians wrote about this). In this respect, I think that the law served to built yet another alliance between the state and Al-Azhar. Despite ruptures to the alliance between the state and the two major religious institutions, this structure is still visible and effective in contemporary politics as recent events have demonstrated.

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