Hollow statism: Discourse and Praxis in the Nationalization of Islamic institutions in Sisi’s Egypt

By Neil Russell
Submitted to Session P6586 (State Religion Relations: Coercion, Accommodation, and Pluralism, 2021 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper examines how in Egypt a new and consolidating authoritarian regime has sought to extend direct state controls over private religious institutions, including mosques and the provision of preachers within them. In 2014, the newly elected president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, called for a “religious revolution” to “renew religious discourse” to combat what he called “Islamist extremism”. The Ministry of Awqaf was subsequently tasked with what was effectively the nationalization of all private mosques, by placing them directly under the administration of the government. It was announced that only state-certified institutes would be permitted to train preachers, with the closure of private institutes and their replacement by new state institutes. Moreover, only state-certified preachers would be permitted to deliver sermons, supplanting thousands of independent imams. Despite these pronouncements, insufficient state capacity meant the implementation of this nationalization plan has remained incomplete. In cases where public expectations exceed governing capacity, states may engage in ‘performative governance’, deploying theatrical language and symbols to foster an impression of successful governance. In Egypt under Sisi, despite the implementation of controls over religious institutions being incomplete in practice, the government continues to project the attainment of these aims discursively through public pronouncements. Whilst increased state budgets in religious affairs did indeed see the incorporation of many private mosques into the state’s own bureaucracy and creation of new institutes to train preachers, thousands of mosques remained independent, whilst private preaching institutes continued to operate despite government claims to the contrary. This paper addresses this contradiction by developing the concept of ‘hollow statism’, showing how ‘performative acts’ attempt to account for this gap between discourse and praxis. Drawing on Egyptian government data and Arabic-language articles from Egyptian media, this paper shows how empirical practices intersect with the production of discourses to help reconstitute authoritarian rule. ‘Hollow statism’, however, demonstrates that despite the heightened level of repression towards private actors in Sisi’s Egypt, the foundations of the new regime’s attempts to control the religious sphere rest on a fragile pretence of these policies being fulfilled.