The boundary between state power and religious life has long been a delicate matter in Egyptian politics. When the government of former strongman Hosni Mubarak proposed a standardized call to prayer in 2005, the resultant backlash promptly forced the typically inflexible regime to swiftly scuttle the idea. Witness the transformation that less than a decade and an unpopular Islamist party can effect: on Tuesday, the Ministry of Religious Endowments announced that it was revoking the licenses of 55,000 religious preachers and that Friday prayers would only be permitted in mosques larger than 80 square meters.
A crackdown on radicalism is the ostensible justification for the new measures but the extent of their reach is significant and marks an unprecedented encroachment into Egyptian religious life by the government:
Imams would now have to submit a request to the ministry to renew their licenses, accompanied by copies of degrees obtained from Al-Azhar or another ministry-affiliated institute, the minister said, in order to clamp down on unqualified imams delivering political sermons inciting violence. Imams with degrees from institutes not recognized by the Endowments Ministry would not have their licenses renewed…
By requiring that all imams go through state channels to be legally qualified to preach, the new military-backed government can ensure tight control over the message of religious sermons — a move that reinforces their crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Having already hit the organization at its structural level, the government is now going after the guiding religious spirit that powers it. The measures also officially place political Islam outside of the religious mainstream, now essentially dictated by the “moderates” in the country’s Al Azhar mosque.
With public animosity towards the Brotherhood in Egypt reaching new heights following the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, there could have been no better time to redefine the parameters defining the intersection of the state and Islamic religious life. Indeed, the move has barely registered with the public, with even hardline Salafists apparently falling in line. The tide has clearly turned against Islamists regionally; this move brings Egypt in line with recent measures by Gulf Arab states to restrict religious preaching, in what is increasingly appearing to be a region-wide effort to quash the influence of political Islam. In Egypt, the latitude afforded to backers of this push would have surely inspired the envy of its former autocrat who, despite his own brutal suppression of Islamists, never had the enthusiastic backing of a supportive public behind him. There is no way the current interim government will squander the opportunity. Though, having already targeted high-profile preachers, shut down sympathetic media outlets such as Misr 25 and Al Jazeera Mubasher Misr, and revoked the Brotherhood’s NGO status, the biggest problem they might face is running out of targets.