Two months ago worshippers at Al-Rahman, a small mosque in the Ain Shams district in eastern Cairo, turned up for prayers on Friday, the Muslim day of rest, to find the doors shut. From now on, they were told, they would have to go to one of the city’s main mosques for the most important prayers of the week. Soon after, another restriction was added when a group that met for discussions about Islam was told to stop. Today the mosque is open for weekday prayer only.
Across the country, many small houses of worship, who appoint their own imams and are often owned and controlled by wealthy families or groups such as Salafists (conservative Muslims who seek to emulate the lives of the Prophet Muhammad’s early followers), have been told to cease activity by the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The move is part of a broader effort to bring civil society to heel, using harsh new laws as well as old regulations that had hitherto gone unenforced. But Mr Sisi’s attempt to control the country’s religious realm goes much further than that of any previous president.
First to be hit were imams and preachers. Those not licensed by the government are banned from preaching. The main qualification for getting a licence is having studied at Al-Azhar mosque, a respected institution for the study of Islamic law. Anyone who defies the order risks a year’s imprisonment and fines of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($7,000). In April the government said it had dismissed 12,000 imams and licensed 17,000 more to make up the shortfall. Across the country, all must give the same sermon on Fridays.
Officials have said that the aim is to clamp down on extremism, a valid concern in a region where it is flourishing. But the crackdown has a strong whiff of political expediency. The laws on mosques are plainly being used to squash dissent, which is strongest among Islamist groupings such as the Muslim Brotherhood, whose government was ousted in July 2013 by the army, then headed by Mr Sisi.
Tirades against Shia Muslims, for example, still go unchecked by the government, says Amr Ezzat, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent advocacy group in Cairo. “The government wants to control the mosques because they are gathering places,” reckons Muhammad Ali, a 26-year-old doctor who attends Al-Rahman. “It does not want to leave any space for opposition.” Worshippers also point to the security forces’ increasing role in monitoring the mosques, when that is supposed to be the job of the ministry of religious endowments and of the authorities at Al-Azhar.
Religious leaders of all faiths have often pledged allegiance to secular rulers in return for being allowed to retain control of their own sphere; for their part, rulers have tried to use the support of the religious authorities to bolster their legitimacy. Al-Azhar itself was a Shia institution when it was founded under the tenth-century Shia Fatimid dynasty, before being closed and reopened under Sunni rulers as a place for their own sect. Past presidents in Egypt have also tried to control Islam for their own ends, seeing unity among the country’s devout and overwhelmingly Sunni population as a key to stability. But small mosques were usually left alone so as not to provoke anger.
The latest clampdown does not only affect the Muslim Brotherhood, which has already been diminished by the imprisonment of senior members and by a government ruling in December that deems it a terrorist organisation. Salafists, many of whom backed the coup against the Brotherhood and have hitherto been left alone, have been hit harder still. Popular preachers such as Yasser Borhami, deputy head of the Alexandria-based al-Dawa al-Salafiya mosque, the fount of the Salafist movement, have been banned from preaching because they did not study at Al-Azhar. The restrictions have hamstrung Salafist activities, such as “inviting” others to join Islam and secluding themselves full-time in the mosques during the last ten days of Ramadan, which ended on July 27th.
The Muslim Brotherhood has called the government’s expanding control a “war on Islam”. But in the current climate of repression, and at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood is loathed by the army, the civil service and many ordinary Egyptians, there has been little protest. Secular opponents who have been outspoken against restrictions on activists in the past have been silent. Some Salafists, who tend not to speak out against the government, have grumbled, but most abide by the curbs.
Human-rights groups see good reason for all to be worried by the new restrictions. “This in effect kills the idea of religious freedom, since Egyptians can’t opt for any religious practice not approved of by the authorities,” says Mr Ezzat. It may be counter-productive, too. In the past, clamping down on the mosques has bred anger and forced hardliners underground. That is not what Egypt needs.