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The Pope in Egypt: Tiptoeing Through a Minefield

Pope Francis is shining a spotlight on complex battles for the soul of Islam as well as the survival of autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

April 30, 2017

Pope Francis is shining a spotlight on complex battles for the soul of Islam as well as the survival of autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

Billed as a bid to stimulate inter-faith dialogue, Pope Francis, on a visit to Egypt, is tiptoeing through a religious and geopolitical minefield. He is the first head of the Vatican to set foot in Egypt in 17 years.

Designed to improve the fragile position of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, North Africa and the larger Muslim world, the pope is walking a tightrope.

A religious minefield

He has to maneuver carefully between Saudi-inspired Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism that fuels intolerance and sectarianism across the region, as well as a power struggle between Egyptian general-turned-president Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi and Al Azhar, one of the world’s oldest and foremost seats of Islamic learning.

In a boost of Orthodox Christian morale, Pope Francis paid homage to the scores of victims of the bombing earlier this month of two Coptic churches.

The bombings were the latest jihadist attacks on religious minorities in the Middle East and North Africa that has persuaded Christians and others to flee their home countries, if not the region.

Al Sisi vs. Al Azhar

Addressing a peace conference at Al Azhar, the pope urged his audience to “say once more a firm and clear ‘No!’ to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God.”

Pope Francis issued his call as Al Azhar was resisting efforts by Mr. Al-Sisi to persuade the institution to cut its ties to ultra-conservatism and reform its teachings.

In doing so, the pope was shining a spotlight on multiple complex battles for the soul of Islam as well as the survival of autocracy in the Middle East and North Africa.

These battles include:

  1. Saudi efforts to distance ultra-conservatism from its more militant, jihadist offshoots
  2. Resistance to reform by ultra-conservatives who no longer are wholly dependent on support of the kingdom
  3. Strains in relations between Saudi Arabia and some of its closest Arab allies, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, that are fought in part over ultra-conservativism and political Islam.

Resistance to Mr. Al-Sisi’s calls for reform of Al Azhar is rooted not only in Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism, but also an ingrained animosity towards government interference and the president’s high-handed approach.

Mr. Al-Sisi, often prone to hyperbole and self-aggrandizement, threatened the university’s scholars in 2015 that he would complain to God if they failed to act on his demand for reform.

“Allah Almighty be witness to your truth on Judgment Day concerning that which I’m talking about now.,” Mr. Al-Sisi said.

Speaking months later to a German Egyptian community, Mr. Al-Sisi asserted that “God made me a doctor to diagnose the problem, he made me like this so I could see and understand the true state of affairs. It’s a blessing from God.”

Mr. Al-Sisi’s campaign against Al Azhar highlights the pitfalls of Saudi Arabia’s long-standing use of religious ultra-conservatism.

It has long pushed its agenda using its financial muscle as a soft power tool, but now sees a need to shave off the rough edges of its ideology, as it seeks to modernize itself.

Al Sisi’s Saudi connection

Mr. Al-Sisi rose to power in a Saudi-backed military coup in 2013 that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president.

Mr. Al-Sisi recently travelled to the kingdom to patch up differences over Syria, Yemen, his inability to whip Egypt’s troubled economy into shape, and his attempted crackdown on ultra-conservatism.

The president’s trip followed the quiet reinstatement of economic support for his regime that the kingdom had temporarily curtailed to signal its unhappiness.

The pope and the former grand mufti

Among the pope’s interlocutors in Egypt was former Egyptian grand mufti Al Goma. He is an opponent of popular sovereignty and an advocate of a Saudi-propagated depoliticized form of Islam that pledges absolute obedience to the ruler.

Mr. Goma is also a symbol of the tension between Al-Sisi and the Saudis. On the one hand, he is prominent backer of Mr. Al-Sisi’s grab for power. On the other hand, he frequently espouses views that reflect Saudi-inspired ultra-conservatism.

Pope Francis’ interlocutors in Cairo also included the imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque, Ahmed El-Tayeb. A prominent Islamic legal scholar, he opposes ultra-conservatism and rejected a nomination for Saudi Arabia’s prestigious King Faisal International Prize.

Nevertheless, Mr. El-Tayeb effusively thanking the kingdom during panels in recent years for its numerous donations to Al Azhar.

Al Azhar scholars, the legal scholar said, compete “frantically” for sabbaticals in the kingdom that could last anywhere from one to 20 years, paid substantially better, and raised a scholar’s status.

What the Pope has set out to achieve

The pope is showing courage and determination in being prepared to walk the tightrope in order to further inter-faith dialogue in the Middle East, North Africa and the Muslim world.

His goal is twofold: First, to counter the threat to Christians and other minorities and, second, to position the church as a bastion in the fight against Islamophobia.

The pope’s problem in Egypt is maneuvering between problematic partners: Mr. Al-Sisi with his brutal repression that threatens to enhance, rather than limit, ultra-conservatism and militancy.

Meanwhile, Islamic scholars are torn between the influence of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative religious establishment and their adherence to Saudi-backed notions of obedience to the ruler. The latter would dictate compliance with the Egyptian leader.

However, because he deliberately positions himself somewhere between them and God, this is a very trouble-laden relationship.


The Pope has to maneuver carefully between Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism and an ongoing power struggle in Egypt.

Resistance to Al-Sisi’s calls for reform of Al Azhar is rooted in ultra-conservatism as well as animosity towards government interference.

The pope is showing courage in being prepared to walk the tightrope to further inter-faith dialogue in the the Muslim world.