Egypt and Saudi Arabia for years have been rivals in the Arab world, and in some times they even risked confrontation with each other.
However, Riyadh has always considered Cairo as a potential opportunity. It spends petrodollars and creates Wahhabist movements in Egypt all to keep links to a country known among the Arabs as the mother of the world.
Recently, the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz paid a visit to Cairo during which he signed a couple of trade agreements with Egypt, and was granted honorary doctorate by Cairo University. The visit of the Saudi king comes while Egypt is suffering from an array of economic difficulties, and the activity of takfiri groups in the Sinai Peninsula are destabilizing the country.
The analysts have shed light on the issue from different perspectives. This article aims at bringing in spotlight the religious and promotional aspects of activity of the Wahhabist movement in Egypt.
A record of Wahhabism in Egypt
Certainly, the foundations for Wahhabist thought were laid in Egypt by the “Reform Movement” founded in the wake of break-up of the Ottoman Empire by such reformists as Sayyid Jamal ad-Din Asadabadi and Muhammad Abduh who aimed at restoring the Islamic civilization and battling the Western colonization. The movement initially took a right course but after infiltration of Saudi Wahhabism, the Egyptian pure reformist movement took the color of Wahhabism.
The Al Saud rulers in Saudi Arabia, who at the same time were busy removing their foreign and domestic adversaries, found out that the Sufis and moderate Muslims of Egypt posed a threat to their rule. So, they went to great lengths to promote the extremist Wahhabist thoughts among the ordinary Egyptians. This became even easier for Saudis after death of Muhammad Abduh and rising to his place Muhammad Rashid Rida, a scholar from the Levant who studied in Al-Azhar University. Rashid Rida, due to his personal inclinations, had the necessary potentials to accompany Al Saud’s policies in Egypt.
Rida held philosophical ideas which totally rejected the West and its achievements. He, for a couple of reasons, separated his way from the Al-Azhar scholars and was not that much supportive of them. Rida, also, saw Sufism- defined as the inner mystical dimension of Islam- as against the Islamic principles and so he had no good relations with it. Rashid Rida observed that following collapse of Ottoman Empire, secular movements rose to power in Turkey and Egypt, and encouraged an anti-religious atmosphere in these two countries.
Influenced by his own personal characteristics, the socio-political conditions in the Egyptian community and also with a green light of the Saudis, Rashid Rida made a shift to the Wahhabist ideology. He began promotion of Wahhabism in Egypt through articles published in the Cairo-based Al-Manar Magazine. It was in these articles that Rida incited the violent Wahhabist thoughts among the moderate and Sufist communities of Egypt. First, in a couple of articles he elaborated on the ideas of Ibn Taymiyyah, a Muslim scholar of 14 century. Rida, then, interpreted the holy Quran by an innovative way, taking cues from Wahhabist methods. His interpretational method, however, faced criticism of the conservative Salafists, Al-Azhar scholars, the Sufists and the liberalist movement of Egypt.
As it moved ahead, the reformist movement of Egypt leaned to the ideas of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the Sunni Muslim preacher from Najd in Arabian Peninsula whose ideas gave rise to Wahhabism. However, it must be taken into account that the Egyptian Wahhabism is different from Saudi Wahhabism in two crucial points: first, the establishment of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia was driven by the politics and the will to form an Islamist government, but on the other side, Egypt’s Wahhabism aimed at promoting the religion, and its appearance was in response to the non-religious, secular atmosphere that overshadowed Egypt. Second, in Saudi Wahhabism the sources of religion include Quran, the Sunnah- the traditions- and the al-Salaf al-Salih- or the righteous predecessors, but the Egyptian Wahhabism emphasizes on consensus in religion rather than traditionalism.
Wahhabist groups in Egypt
Therefore, Rashid Rida has managed to change the religious orientations of a part of Egyptian community. He drove out the Sunni Sufism and brought in the Sunni Wahhabism in a bid to pave the way for foundation of Wahhabist groups in Egypt, the most important of them are as follows:
The movement was founded in 1913 by Mahmoud Khatab al-Sobki. Al-Sobki initially held Sufist ideas. In the beginning he wrote a book on Sufism but then he shifted to Wahhabist ideology. In support of Sunni Muslims al-Sobki issued some publications which mostly were inclined to favor Wahhabism and come against Sufism. After him, his son Amin al-Sobki authored 9 books in Egypt, all inviting to Wahhabism. Currently, Al-Jamiya al-Sharia is the largest and richest religious group active in Egypt, taking funding from Saudi Arabia. It opened 350 centers across Egypt, with 5,000 mosques and thousands of preachers active across the country. To attract the Egyptians, the group accomplishes an array of activities, including support of people in deprived areas, offering medical services, granting scholarships to students from poor families and launching water supply and road construction projects also in deprived regions.
Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyah Society
The Ansar al-Sunnah Society was founded in 1926 by the prominent Al-Azhar scholar Sheikh Muhammad Hamed al-Faqi. Sheikh al-Faqi held friendly contacts with the Al-Saud rulers in the Arabian Peninsula. Abdulaziz bin Al Saud of Saudi Arabia ordered construction of large building for al-Faqi in the prominent Abedeen District in Cairo to turn it into a center for promotion of Wahhabism in the Egyptian capital.
The society is the most special center for promotion of Wahhabist ideology and also publication of the books of Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn al-Qayyim, the Arab Islamist theologian of 14the century. Despite the fact that the leaders of Ansar al-Sunnah, at least ostensibly, opposed engagement in politics, after Egypt uprising of 2011, they gradually crept into the politics and administration. When the Egyptian society set to rise against President Hosni Mubarak, the clerics of the Ansar al-Sunnah, with the slogan of religious illegitimacy of revolt against the ruler, have tried to calm down the revolutionaries. However, after removal of Mubarak, the Society joined the Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition and even sent members to the post-revolution parliament.
Ansar al-Sunnah has under its administration nearly 1,500 mosques across Egypt. Construction of mosques, religious schools, hospitals and orphanages are its major activities. For example, it provides residence and help to nearly 12,000 orphan children across the country. Currently, the Society is headed by Sheikh Abdullah Shaker al-Juneydi. Al-Juneydi took a strong position after young Iranians staged in January a rally near Saudi Arabian consulate in Iran in protest of execution of the Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr by the Saudi regime. He issued a tough statement in condemnation of the Iranian protestors. He also supported execution of the prominent Shiite cleric by Riyadh, accusing Tehran of inciting divisions and prompting Shiite Islam in the Arab countries.
The Al-Da’wa Al-Salafiyya could certainly be called the most astute Islamist society in Egypt. The society was founded in the mid-1970s by a group of students from Alexandria Medical University. They stated that their aim was to promote religion and stay away from the politics. The founders of the society like Muhammad Ismail al-Muqaddam, Yasser Barhami, Ahmad Farid and some others were highly under the influence of Saudi Wahhabist clerics like Sheikh Abd al-Aziz Ibn Baz and Muhammad in al Uthaymeen. They for several months attended classes of these Saudi Wahhabists.
Before 2011 uprising, the clerics of Al-Da’wa called on people not to take to streets in protest of Hosni Mubarak, but right after fall of Mubarak they made a U-turn, founding the Salafist Al-Nour Party. They won 20 percent of the parliamentary seats in the first post-revolution election in Egypt. The party is now considered as one of the major players in the Egyptian politics. Al-Nour Party, according to the analysts, is also one of the most astute Islamist parties. Even after fall of rule of Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, and while the government of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi clamped down on many of the Islamist parties, the Al-Nour Party has been freely active in the country.
All in all, it should be assured that the Wahhabist movement in Egypt has severely received influences from Saudi Arabia. The clerics of the movement are backed by Saudi as well as Emirati petrodollars, and are influential both in state decision making and leading the public opinion across the country.
Although a moderate society, the Egyptians, mostly the middle and lower classes, due to severe poverty and lack of livelihood sources are considerably pushed, in recent years, towards this aberrant religious movement. Also squeezed with deteriorated economic conditions, the Egyptian government has no way but acceding to the orders of the Wahhabist clerics who are its links with the wealthy Persian Gulf Arab states. It is for this reason that in recent years, specifically after 2011 revolution, negative stances against the Shiites and the Islamic Republic of Iran- seen by Wahhabism as an enemy- have been taken by the government officials and ordinary Egyptians.