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Is Egypt relevant to Islam and Muslims in Africa? – Dr. Glen Segell

May 23, 2017


Is Egypt relevant to Islam and Muslims in Africa?

By Glen Segell

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 10 (May 2017)

Posing questions and attempting to answer them about Islam and Muslims in Africa must look towards Egypt as a starting point or even the focal point, as a case separate from others. This is not because Islam is different in Egypt. This is because Egypt is unique in many aspects relating to its demography, geography, and the spotlight on domestic rather than foreign affairs. The answers of many questions would no doubt find that Egypt is inwards rather than outwards focused when considering matters of religion. This is maybe due to the Sahara desert and maybe due to the enormous task relating to governance of its large population.

Demographically Egypt with a population of 92 million is the most populous country in North Africa and the Arab world, the third most populous in Africa and the fifteenth most populous in the world. Worship is well depicted in the ancient hieroglyphics, though those religions have fallen by the wayside. The Abrahamic (belief in one G-d) religion in Egypt is more recent; being well written upon as Moses in the Jewish Bible and the Christian Old Testament.[1] The Islamization of Egypt occurred following the conquest by the Arabs led by Amr ibn Al-Aas in 640 AD.[2] However there are no significant Islamic sites for pilgrimages from other states at the level of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The 2006 Census in Egypt, counted religion, and informs that over 90% of all Egyptians are Muslims and the vast majority of these are Sunni. A significant number follow Sufi orders, while less follow Ahmadi and even less Mu’tazila orders. Only about 8% of the population is Christian and the rest are Shia Muslims or other faiths such as Jews, and Baha’i. Most Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, an oriental orthodox church.[3]

It is these minorities and the changing political leadership that are in the spotlight of domestic religious affairs in government policy. Similar to other states in the Middle East, the late 1970s and early 1980s were a turning point towards Islamization. Egypt was a more of a secular country until 1980 when Islam was introduced as the state religion through an amendment to the Constitution. The Constitution also states that all new legislation must conform to Islamic law.[4] There is no indication of sponsoring missionary activities outside of Egypt’s borders.

The constitution offers freedom of religion to the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). [5] In reality policy is not always put into practice; and extremist and radical elements in society don’t necessarily accept government policy; while officials also sometimes turn a blind eye to their activities. Proportionally non-Muslims are minimally represented in public office and are discriminated against in the workforce. Freedom of religion and worship are limited by quasi-government intervention and sectarian conflict. Even since the Arab Spring of 2010 conversions to Islam are accepted but not the reverse; while the majority of prison charges relating to religion are to Christians followed by Shiite Muslims and then atheists.[6]

Slander of the Jewish faith and its adherents is a fixture of contemporary Egyptian life. Anecdotal and statistical evidence puts Egypt in the running for the world’s most anti-Semitic nation: with 98 percent of the public expressing unfavorable opinions of Jews, it exceeds even the accomplished records of its Arab neighbors.[7]

Geographically Egypt is located at the link between Africa and Asia. The most important and closest of Middle East neighbors is Saudi Arabia, the home of the two most important sites in Sunni Islam (Medina and Mecca). The relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia extend back centuries; that between Egypt Eyalet in the Ottoman Empire and the earlier manifestations of Saudi/Wahhabi power in the Arabian Peninsula (Emirate of Diriyah).[8]

The relations have not always been cordial and differences of opinion in the political arena have been seen in Cold War allegiances of Egyptian Abdel Nasser to the Soviet Union, Sadat’s peace with Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood of Morsi, the current Syrian civil war and support of factions in the Yemen conflict. The important point is that Saudi Arabia hasn’t tried to impose its Sunni values on Egypt; the Islamization of Egypt and its policy on religion have been domestic inspired. Clearly the link between religion and politics in the two states can be summed up as “while religion and the religious establishment influence Saudi policy, religion in Egypt is confronted by a revolutionary order.”[9]

Historically Egypt has been an important link between the spread of Islam through Africa through trade including slaves. However the bottom line today is that Egypt is not showing an interest or displaying intent to project Islam or radical or extremist groups into African countries as a government policy or as a policy of any religious group based in Egypt. Maybe the vast expanses of the Sahara desert to the south are a factor. Nevertheless there are extremist groups in the west of Egypt active in Libya and in the Sinai Peninsula.[10]

That leaves Egypt’s significance to Islam and Muslims and Africa as its own demography as the most populous country in North Africa and the Arab world. The overriding concern about Egypt is the persecution of Christian Coptic population.


[1] E. Padilla, P. Phan (ed) Theology of Migration in the Abrahamic Religions, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

[2] Abd al-Basit Ahmad, Amr Bin Al-‘Aas Radiya Allah ‘anhu, (Darussalam, 2000)

[3] Egypt. al-Jihāz al-Markazī lil-Tabiah al-Āmmah wa-al-Ihsạ̣̄, Statistical Yearbook, Arab Republic of Egypt, Volume 48, (Cairo: Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, 2008)

[4] Egypt Government, Constitutions of Egypt: Constitution of Egypt, (Cairo: General Books LLC, 2010)

[5] Egypt Government, Constitutions of Egypt: Constitution of Egypt, (Cairo: General Books LLC, 2010)

[6] Moha Ennaji (ed), Multiculturalism and Democracy in North Africa: Aftermath of the Arab Spring, (New York: Routledge, 2014)

[7] Oren Kessler, “Egypt’s Religious Freedom Farce”, The National Interest, May 21, 2015,

[8] Jake Wien, Egypt-Saudi Relations, (Rand Corporation 1980)

[9] Baha Abu-Laban‏ and Sharon MacIrvin Abu, The Arab World: Dynamics and Development, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1986)

[10] Dave Dilegge and Robert J. Bunk , Al-Qaeda and Islamic State State Networks, (Small Wars Foundation, 2014)

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