Egypt’s Top-Down Sectarianism


PDF downlaodBülent Aras* and Selma Bardakcı**
POMEAS BRIEF, No.1, June 2014


A close analysis of sectarian divides in Egypt reveals that, rather than being an inherent part of society, such divides are manipulated and exacerbated by politicians seeking power. Examples from Sadat, Mubarak, Morsi, and al-Sisi demonstrate the nature of this divisive rhetoric and its negative impact. The sectarian tensions, which have produced an increasing amount of violence after the military coup in the summer of 2013, pose a danger not only to minority groups like Coptic Christians and the Baha'i but also within the Muslim community. The violence only continues to escalate while demanding rapid and appropriate action from the current government.


Sectarianism: inherent or manipulated?

Before the formation of nation-states, under the Islamic and Ottoman Empires, people living in present-day Egypt identified themselves based on religious identity. Under the Egyptian national framework, divisions that once fostered coexistence have become exploited and politicized under various regimes. While sectarianism is not structural in Egyptian society, such divisions are sharpened by both economic disparities and manipulations by various groups to gain political power. Just one year before the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, a report found links between poverty and sectarian violence. The report found that there is "a close correlation between sites of poverty and the locations of sectarian violence. Where poverty is concentrated, rates of violence are higher."1 Slowed economic development combined with a fragile and polarizing political system that thrives on exploitation has compounded sectarian division and violence in Egypt.

The July 1952 Revolution led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the new nationalistic policies it brought accelerated religious emigration of non-Muslims such as Jews and expatriate communities. Sectarian violence started increasing under the presidency of Anwar Sadat and under his policy of economic liberalization and opening towards the West. The Christians suffered at the beginning of Sadat's rule, as he termed himself the "pious president" and emphasized Islam as the state religion and made Sharia law the main source of legislation in 1980.2 Next, although President Sadat had originally sought to increase political participation and the role of religion in the state, by the late 1970s Sadat and his government began repressing Islamist groups. The conflict between the state and Islamist groups intensified under Hosni Mubarak's regime, as Mubarak used the security apparatus to repress the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. In some cases, the marginalization of these groups caused further radicalism.3

The deadliest act of violence against Egyptian Christians in over a decade occurred just before Mubarak's ouster in February 2011. The bomb that exploded at a Coptic Church in Alexandria in 2011 killed twenty-three people and injured around 97.4 While the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 unified Egyptians from all walks of life for a brief period, Egypt witnessed many incidents of serious sectarian violence under the interim Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)-led government. While government officials blamed Islamic extremist groups such as the Gaza-based and Hamas-affiliated Army of Islam, other reports claim that state officials were involved in the bombings to play on minority fears of an Islamist takeover.5 The blame for this incident illustrates how various political factions manipulate and even sharpen sectarian tensions and violence to serve their own needs. The problem of Egyptian sectarianism, then, lies not in inherent hatred, but rather in selfish and corrupt politicians and an exclusive political system that thrives on polarization against a political "other" in order to maintain electoral support.

A transition to increased violence

Political Islam gained freedom, and subsequently influence, after the Mubarak regime was toppled in January 2011. Salafis involved in these Islamist movements promoted the systematic targeting of religious minorities, especially Coptic Christians and Shiites, by using violence and hate speech. Officials denounced Shiite practices, and a new constitution made Sunni Islam the basis for laws. A lynching in a Cairo suburb occurred in June 2013 in which a mob dragged bodies of one prominent Shiite cleric and three others through the street while the police simply stood by.6 As the primary sources of discontent among Egyptian youth under Morsi's rule remained such as the high cost of living, excessive unemployment, energy shortages, and overall economic hardship, Morsi strove to detract from these issues and garner support from Salafi circles by emphasizing pan-Sunni Islamism in his foreign policy approach (especially towards Syria). Yet domestic and foreign policy do not exist in separate spheres and many religious minorities felt threatened by the Sunni-centric discourse in Islamist, and especially Salafist, circles. Coptic Christians felt especially threatened by anti-Coptic rhetoric from Salafist religious and media personalities.7

The minority Shia population, even after the historic Arab Spring events of 2011, has continued to be subject to discrimination and violence by the predominant Sunni/Salafi community. Much like the Coptic Christian community, the exact number of the existing Shia community is continuously disputed as there are no official documents that denote the exact number of the Shia minority in the Egyptian population. The extremist Salafi community, the second most powerful group in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood, claim that the Shia constitute only 1% of the Egyptian population.8 This number, however, has been misconstrued as many Shia Muslims in Egypt are forced to hide their official religious beliefs fearing discrimination, persecution, and violence by the Salafis. This is caused by the increasing anti-Shia discourses preached in public and on national TV by Salafi leaders, which has resulted in the increased spread of intolerance against religious minorities.9 The anti-Shia discourse promoted by the Salafi clerics, however, transcends political and social discrimination. Salafi groups continuously burn Shia and Sufi mosques and shrines, which has also accumulated to the murder of countless Shia citizens.10 The government and the police, faced with growing sectarian violence in Egypt, have continuously failed to intervene.11 Facing little to no repercussions from the government, it does not seem as if Salafi persecution and violence against the minority Shia community will stop anytime soon.

Sectarian violence really escalated, however, following Mohammed Morsi's removal from office in the summer of 2013. Amid this political and social, the military appointed an interim government and planned to amend the constitution. Security forces dispersed coup opponents during two sit-ins in August 2013 -- during these clashes and their aftermath, more than 600 pro-Morsi supporters and almost 700 civilians were killed. In addition, around 100 police and security forces were killed during this time.12

Many of Morsi supporters saw Christians and the church as largely involved with both Morsi's ouster and the army's seizing of government control. This might be due to the fact that when Sisi announced the post-Morsi roadmap, Pope Tawadros II (the head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church) appeared alongside other anti-Morsi political and religious figures, disregarding an earlier promise to keep the church out of partisan politics.13 The ouster, in this way, played on and further fuelled politically-motivated sectarian tensions. Some Copts did in fact cheer the military takeover, since they feared Muslim Brotherhood rule. The military shut down ultraconservative Islamist satellite networks that had been condemning Christians or Shiite Muslims. They also sponsored constitutional revisions that emphasized religious freedom.14

Politicizing tensions

Indeed, since the removal of Morsi, Egypt is witnessing the worst wave of militant violence since the 1990s, and sectarian violence has only seemed to increase. Several hundred policemen and soldiers have been killed after the government killed hundreds of Morsi supporters in a crackdown.15 Not only do prosecutors continue jailing Coptic Christians, Shiite Muslims, and atheists on charges of contempt of religion, Christians have also become more endangered in being viewed as scapegoats for Islamists who are angry about the church's support for the military takeover. Sectarian tensions among various Islamic factions have also increased. Indeed, Sisi has used religion to legitimize coup leaders and undermine their opponents. At a Friday prayer service, for example, Sheikh Ali Gomaa — a former mufti and close Sisi ally — directly called Sisi's Islamist opponents a "faction of hypocrites" who were "plotting scenes against the Muslims." As the Sheikh lauded soldiers and police for fighting these "terrorists," Sisi stood by in front of television cameras in a show of public support.16

Factors under the current Sisi-led government in Egypt have contributed to the politicization of sectarian tensions. Violence on sectarian lines has become entirely political, whereas before the January revolution, animosity was more often fuelled by local or personal reasons, such as quarrels or intermarriages. Now, however, strains are becoming more institutionalized. When it comes to hatred against Coptic Christians, for example, Egyptian-American scholar Michael Hanna argued that the pope's statements and public support of Sisi fuses religion and politics, which only serves to hurt minorities. Moreover, the army's revised constitution of the constitution allows the Parliament to regulate crimes like contempt of religion, which makes room for persecution of minorities that is permissible under law.17

In addition to exploiting minority insecurities, Sisi has used Islam as a tool to repress Islamists. He portrays himself as a champion of benign and moderate Islam and accuses his opponents of misinterpreting the religion. On May 5, Sisi said, "I see that the religious discourse in the entire Islamic world has cost Islam its humanity. This requires us, and for that matter all leaders, to review their positions."18 Of all military leaders who have governed Egypt since the founding of the Republic, Sisi is the most publicly pious. His reinforcement of state-backed, apolitical Islam — his assertion that he holds the "exclusive truth" — provides him with authority, even within the religious sphere, to make the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, jail all Brotherhood members, and paint all Islamists as extremists. Yet conflict between the state and Islamist groups is not new and reflects deep-rooted political tensions.

Group divisions, both within and between Non- Muslim groups

The Coptic Christian community, established in 43 AD, is one of the oldest Christian communities that currently exist in the Middle East. With about 12 million followers in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church is the largest church in the region and comprises approximately 6 to 20% of the Egyptian population.19 St. Mark brought Christianity to Alexandria during the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero in the first century.20 Since their creation the Coptic community has played a vital role in the development of the Christian religion around the world and is regarded as one of the most historically important Christian communities that exists due to their many historical contributions.

Historically, the Copts are recognized as the church that has faced the most persecution and aggression in the Christian world. Since the 1970s, the Coptic minority in Egypt has been subjected to various forms of sectarian violence. In addition to violent attacks, churches, bookstores, and orphanages have been ransacked or burned to the ground. In the face of such violence, due to the outdated policies and authoritarian institutions implemented by Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, both the army and police have been negligent in their duty to intervene against this violence, which has further enabled the spread of sectarian violence.21 The 2011 Revolution was thought to be the beginning of a new era in which the Coptic minority hoped to finally achieve equal rights for the first time in modern Egyptian history. Unfortunately, the Coptic community still face violent attacks persecution in the post-2011 era.

The fall of former president Morsi and Sisi's rise to power failed to signal the beginning of the promotion of equal social rights between the Muslim and Coptic Christian communities. The removal of Morsi has merely signaled the return to the problems and violence faced during reigns of Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. Other than physical assaults that have been performed against the Coptic community by the Islamists, the Copts still face a number of 'quotidian discrimination.'22 They have been repeatedly rejected from entering position of leadership in the Egyptian government, leading to institutional neglect in solving the problem of sectarian violence. While it is the Islamist extremists who both blame the Copts for the ouster of Morsi and also perform the various violent and degrading acts against this community, the blame falls on the Egyptian institution who willingly ignores any attempts to bring about a shift in the social attitudes of Egyptian Islamists.

Egyptian Jews are more numerous in the diaspora (there is a small Jewish community of about 50 based in Cairo), as they were targeted extensively by the Nasserite regime for allegedly supporting Israel. Today, the small but historically-rooted Jewish community in Cairo seeks to remain inconspicuous in the face of violent anti-Israel activists who conflate Judaism with Zionism. From this conflation, Jews in Egypt remain vulnerable amongst Islamist groups connected with Hamas or those that seek to cut off ties with Israel. However, Egypt's constitution only recognizes and grants explicit freedom to three religious sects —Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Despite widespread anti-Semitism in state-controlled and semi-official media, Judaism is one of only three religious groups to be recognized in Egypt.23

The Baha'i faith is not as fortunate as Baha'i people still write "-" in the field marked "religion" on their national ID (whereas Muslims, Christians, and Jews are free to write their respective religions), because being a Baha'i or Jehovah's Witness is technically banned. Atheists and agnostics also have problems self-identifying publicly and were also scapegoated after Morsi's ouster. Indeed, during the first half of 2013 (under Morsi's rule), Islamist clerics incited sectarianism against Copts, Shi'a, and Baha'i, and blasphemy cases continue to be leveled against religious minorities and "dissident" Muslims.

Sunni groups

Nothing about sectarian groups in Egypt is simple, and embedded within each group exists many different and nuanced cleavages. When talking about Egyptian Sunni Islamist groups, it is critical to distinguish between Salafis, the hardline Islamists, and other groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. While most other Islamist groups sympathize with the Brotherhood in its opposition to Sisi, the main ultraorthodox Salafist group Al Da'wa Al Salafiya supports Sisi. Even though this group is more radical than the Brotherhood in calling for an Islamist state in the post-Mubarak era, it supports Sisi. The Nour party, the political arm of the Al Da'wa Al Salafiya, is the largest Salafist party with 122 seats in the Egyptian Parliament in 2012 and has the space to continue their activities, unlike the Brotherhood.24

The Salafi movement has distanced itself from radical hardliners of Islamic fundamentalism, such as Jamaat al-TakfeerW'alHigrah. Aside from the Nour Party, other Salafi political parties include Hizb Al Asala and Hizb Al Bina'walTanmiyya (Construction and Development Party), the political arm of the controversial and militant Jama'aIslamiyya.25 The founder of this group has been detained since 1981 for planning to kill Anwar Sadat, illustrating the long-held state-Islamist divide. Much later, Morsi appointed Abdel Asaad El Khayat as governor of Luxor. This move caused much backlash from Morsi's opponents, since Luxor is the most touristic governorate in Egypt and Jama'aIslamiyya carried out terrorist attacks that killed dozens of tourists, soldiers, and police officers in the same city. In response to protests, however, Khayat resigned immediately and did not take office.26

The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest Sunni (non-Salafi) Islamist group. Although it is transnational, it started in Egypt in 1928 as a pan-Islamic, religious social movement. The Brotherhood officially renounced political violence in 1949 with the goal of institutionalizing Qur'an and Sunni law within the state. Hostilities between the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni state institutions took hold during Anwar Sadat's rule. Like Sadat, Sisi strives to be known for his piety while marginalizing and replacing the Muslim Brotherhood and countering their argument that he is anti-Islam.27

If not from Sunni Islamists or Salafists, where does the state derive this parallel religious authority? The Al Azhar Mosque is the Egyptian state's leading Islamic institution and constitutes the main opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood. After the overthrow of Mubarak, the divide between Al Azhar and the Brotherhood deepened. As the Brotherhood gained more support from student elections and the Egyptian youth, they called for increased independence of Al Azhar from the state. They called for the Grand Imam to be elected by the Azhar members and not appointed by the head of state.28

Other institutions that aligned with Al Azhar include the Ministry of Awqaf (in charge of endowments for religious affairs in Egypt and oversees appointments of clerics and Friday prayer sermons in mosques) and the independent but state-tied institution Dar El Eftaa Al Masriyya (concerned with passing Islamic laws and legal research, or fatwas and fiqh). The Grand Mufti of Dar El Eftaa Al Masriyya was appointed in 2013 for the first time by the Council of Senior Scholars of Al Azhar rather than by the president, illustrating the divide between the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Azhar under Morsi's rule. In strong opposition to both Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, most of the figures of Al Azhar and Dar Al Iftaa see themselves as safeguarding true and moderate Islam from radical Islamists.29

Current (post-2011) Jihadi groups

In reality, radical groups do exist in the form of Jihadi groups, which have increased their activities after the 2011 Revolution that ousted Mubarak. The post-Mubarak rise in jihadist activity was especially evident through the attacks on the Sinai pipeline used to export gas to Israel and Jordan. Two major Jihadist groups are Ansar Bait Al Maqdis and Ansar Al Sharia. The former, Ansar Bait Al Maqdis, has been active in Sinai in 2011. Their initial aim was to act against the State of Israel, but their target later shifted to the Egyptian military. In fact, the Egyptian military blamed many of this group's attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood.30 Ansar Al Sharia is more underground, and its links with Ansar Bait Al Maqdis are not clear. Overall, though, the Sinai Peninsula has become a breeding ground for different terrorist organizations since the SCAF regime took transitional control in 2013 after Mubarak's ouster.

Non-Sunni groups

Yet it is not only non-Muslim groups that suffer from extremism. Shiites, in particular, constitute another targeted group. The main opponents of Shiism in Egypt include Salafis, the state, and state religious institutions such as the Al Azhar Mosque. During Morsi's rule, rhetoric against Shiites was toned down, which could have been due to the visit to Egypt by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Even the Al Azhar Mosque under Morsi toned down its anti-Shia discourse, which is yet another example of how domestic and foreign policy do not exist in separate spheres.31 Regardless of the latest politics, there has frequently been obvious discrimination and prejudice towards Egypt's Shiites in all aspects of life, including in education, government, and establishment of mosques. To most Egyptians, Shiites have become almost invisible as a distinct community.

Even more invisible are Qur'anists, who believe that the Qur'an is the only source of understanding in Islam, and they deny the value of the Hadith as something recorded long after the prophet Mohammed's death. Because all other sects of Islam see Qur'anism as apostasy, the opponents of Qur'anists include all other sects of Sunni Islam. After being prosecuted and detained in Egypt, Qur'anism remains popular only among some Egyptian expatriates and scholars.32


In moving towards a solution to sectarianism, Egyptian activists and officials, as well as the international community, should recognize the political roots of the problems. As Egypt's persistent sectarianism and its history shows, hostility and violence based on religious lines is less about ideological difference, and more about top-down incitement that depends on and exploits difference. Thus, sectarianism in Egypt is not an organic problem, instead a political one, and comes from lacking an infrastructure within a government that allows for inclusive democracy. Sectarianism in Egypt is a strategy of authoritarian survival of the political regime, which targeted some sections directly and used to provoke societal groups against each other. It is a top-down sectarianism and has been fostered in a political atmosphere of fear, oppression, and silencing in Egypt. While there is some degree of tension within Egyptian society - such as between Salafis and Shia - and political atmosphere tends to escalate them to violent situations mainly due to the forced alliance of survival with the state establishment and putting some groups at odd situations against others, and then the state's turning a blind eye to violent situations for tactical reasons.

Egypt's top-down sectarianism is not an irrevocable phenomena in Egyptian politics. It takes place within the framework of continuous reproduction of authoritarian survival under different political leaders and becomes a strategy for preserving hold on power. Despite the considerable change the Tahrir revolution brought to Egyptian politics, the elected leaders after the Mubarak regime continued the previous pattern of authoritarian survival, even reminding the worst examples in Egyptian history under Sisi rule and in his preceding transition period. The (ab)use of religion for justifying rule and seeking legitimacy and non-functional representation of minorities in government are components of employing top-down sectarianism as a strategy. The worsening economic situation, demographic crisis and deepening political polarization constitutes the fragile socio-economic and political background on which sectarian fault lines occurs.

The sectarian divide in regional politics is more visible and tension is higher than ever. While the regional situation is conducive to the emergence of sectarian fault lines and violence, the Egyptian style top-down sectarianism will backfire contrary to the expectation of utilizing it as a strategy of authoritarian survival. The situation may get out of control easily and the cost would be enormous for Egypt as a whole. This is a matter of state-society relations and creating equal opportunities for varieties of Egyptian society. Any move towards inclusive democracy would help to foster the sense of equal citizenship and easing sectarian tensions in Egypt. It is also a governmental duty to take care of inter-societal tensions and develop rule of law to let people know their limits in the circumstances of socio-economic life. The measures taken should not be particularistic but instead should have a universalistic approach of encompassing Egyptian society. It is crucial that the Egyptian government, instead of striving for "informal reconciliation" and treating sectarianism as a local issue, should ensure that the penal code is applied equally and in any event of a criminal act. The current situation of sectarianism in Egypt is not manageable, and the political atmosphere is not sustainable unless there is a change of governmental attitude, a strong political will to solve the problems, and creative thinking for a number immediate measures.


1 "Two Years of Sectarian Violence: What happened? Where Do We Begin?," Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, accessed June 5, 2014,
2 "Egypt," Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed June 5, 2014,
3 Ibid.
4 Kareem Fahim and Liam Stack, "Fatal Bomb Hits a Church in Egypt," The New York Times, February 1, 2011, accessed June 6, 2014,
5 Farrag Ismail, "Ex-minister Suspected behind Alex Church Bombing," Al Arabiya, February 7, 2011, accessed June 5, 2014,
6 Shashank Bengali, "Egypt's Shiite Muslims Saw the Sunni Hatred Grow under Morsi," Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2013, accessed June 5, 2014,
7 Daniel Wagner, "Morsi Plays the Sectarian Card," The Huffington Post, June 25, 2013, accessed June 5, 2014,
8 Shia Rights Watch, "Shia Muslim Killing, Rise of Intolerance in Egypt," accessed June 5, 2014,
9 Ibid.
10 Nebahat Tanrıverdi, "Egyptian Salafi Movement in Post-Mobarek Period," ORSAM, accessed April 19, 2011,
11 Alastair MacDonald and Shadia Nasralla, "Sectarian Killing Rattles Fearful Egypt," Reuters, accessed on June 24, 2013,
12 USCIRF, "Countries of Particular Concern: Egypt," 2014 Annual Report, accessed April 30, 2014,
13 Dhalia Kholaif, "Egypt's Sectarian Tensions Become Politicised," Al Jazeera, July 26, 2013, acessed June 5, 2014,
14 David D. Kirkpatrick, "Vow of Freedom of Religion Goes Unkept in Egypt," The New York Times, April 25, 2014, acessed June 5, 2014,
15USCIRF, "Countries of Particular Concern: Egypt."
16 Kirkpatrick, " Vow of Freedom of Religion Goes Unkept in Egypt."
17 Ibid.
18 Ken Hanly, "Al-Sisi Uses His OwnView of Islam against Islamists," Digital Journal, May 11, 2014 accessed June 05, 2014,
19 "The Copts Today," Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, accessed on June 5, 2014,
20 Azer Bestavros, "The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt," Encyclopedia Coptica, accessed June 5, 2014,
21 Jason Brownlee, "Violence Against Copts in Egypt," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accessed June 5, 2014,
22 Ibid
23 Jenna Krajeski, "Cairo's Jews Show God They Are Still There," Tablet Magazine, September 10, 2013, accessed June 5, 2014,
24 Mustafa El-Labbad, "Egypt's Presidential Candidates Envision New Regional Role and Foreign Policy," Atlantic Council, May 23, 2012, accessed June 5, 2014,$Version=0&$Path=/&$
25 Stéphane Lacroix, Sheikhs and Politicians: Inside the New Egyptian Salafism (Doha: Brookings Doha Center Publications, 2012).
26 "Newly-Appointed Luxor Governor Resigns after Protests," Egypt Independent, June 23, 2013, accessed June 5, 2014,
27 Kim Ghattas, "Profile: Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood," BBC, February 9, 2001, accessed June 5, 2014,
28 Gihan Shahine, "Mixed Messages on Al-Azhar," Al-Ahram Weekly, accessed June 5, 2014,
29 Ibid.
30 Ali Omar, "Al-Arish Natural Gas Pipeline Bombed," Daily News Egypt, May 24, 2014, accessed June 5, 2014,
31 "Iran's Ahmadinejad Lands in Egypt on HistoricVisit," Jerusalem Post, February 5, 2013, accessed June 5, 2014,
32 "Al-Azhar's Relations with Other Sunni Groups," Islamopedia Online, accessed June 5, 2014,

* Bülent Aras is academic coordinator of POMEAS.

** Selma Bardakcı works at Bahçeşehir University, School of Government and Leadership. She focuses on international relations and Middle East. Bardakcı graduated from Bahçesehir University with a Master's Degree in Global Politics and International Relations.