August 29, 2016 Special Dispatch No. 6592

Egyptian Coptic MP 'Imad Gad: Separating Religion And State - A Condition For Democracy

August 29, 2016
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 6592

In a series of articles in the official Egyptian daily Al-Watan, Dr. 'Imad Gad, a Coptic MP from the Free Egyptians Party and deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, called for the separation of religion and state, as a condition for democracy and progress in the country. According to Gad, the historical religion-state connection has led to nothing but oppression, and has always stemmed from the narrow interests of regimes seeking clerics' blessing for establishing their rule. Pointing at the Middle Ages in Europe, he noted that this connection had hobbled thought, science, and creativity, leading to book-burning and the murder of scientists and writers. Europe, he said, emerged from this dark era only when its peoples rose up to separate religion from politics, leading to the Renaissance, democratic progress, and the advance of human rights. He stressed that no people could ever revive itself and attain democratic development until it separated religion from politics.

Addressing the situation in Egypt, Gad said that instead of advancing towards such a separation and a civil state, Egypt was moving in the opposite direction, establishing itself as a religious state. He argued that Egypt currently has attributes of a religious state rife with religious zealotry and extremism, and that Egypt's citizens are now witnessing "ancient sights that belong in the past." He added that throughout its history, Egyptian rulers such as presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Gamal Hosni Mubarak had leveraged the religion to establish their regimes, and allowed political Islam to emerge and operate in the country. The removal of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime headed by president Muhammad Morsi gave the Egyptian people hope that its new president, 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi, would work to establish a modern civil state, but these hopes, he said, remain false, as religious extremism continues to prevail in state institutions.[1]


'Imad Gad (

The following are excerpts from Gad's articles:

Egypt Has Characteristics Of A Religious State - Which Belong In The Past

In a June 20, 2016 article, Gad wrote: "In the few days since the start of the month of Ramadan, Egypt has witnessed several phenomena that belong to past times, other peoples, and different cultures, [and that are] based on a rigid and monolithic understanding of religion, sect, and thought. In those cultures, extremism and zealotry played a central role. In our country, there were several raids by [security forces loyal to] the regime on cafes operating during Ramadan. When the call for morning prayer [began], the police chased Egyptian citizens through the streets of old Cairo, forcing them to either pray in the mosques or go home... [Additionally,] the security forces are clearly lax in their dealings with violent religious and sectarian crime, and with attacks on churches and their institutions. These are the attributes of a religious state - ancient sights that belong in the past, when the regime mixed religion and politics and harmed both in the process...

"Throughout history, the ruler always needed the cleric to bless his regime and prohibit rebelling against him. This was also true in ancient Egypt with the pharaohs and priests, [back when] the pharaohs were treated like gods. In the case of the monotheistic religions, the religion-politics connection was found in the earliest historical stages of Judaism. In Christianity, kings used the Catholic popes for [their] interests, and in Islam emirs and rulers used the religion [as well].

"The religion-politics connection was purely for the sake of interests. Rulers constantly needed clerics to bless their regime, forbid rebellion against them, and provide religious justification [for the people] to accept the ruler's authority. The height of this connection...  came in medieval Europe, between the Catholic Church and kings and rulers. It brought the Dark Ages down on the European continent, during which thought and science were restricted, creativity was considered a crime, and scientists and writers were murdered and burned along with their books, which were seen as heretical or deviating from tradition...

"Europe emerged from these dark times only after its peoples rose up against this [religion-politics] connection, and decided to separate religion from politics. Because of the heavy burden imposed [on these peoples] by the use of religion in politics of all forms, the popular response against religion was generally harsh: atheist movements [emerged], the religion was attacked, and people abandoned it - all because it was used for the benefit of rulers in all areas...

"The peoples of Europe rose up, separated religion from politics, and pushed the clerics into the churches. Then the Renaissance began, democracy began to develop, and human rights prospered.

"No country or people can revive or actualize its democratic development until it separates religion from politics - [until it separates] the absolute sanctity of religion from the relative manmade [laws] of politics. In general, separating religion from politics aims to preserve the sanctity and honor of the religion and the status of the clerics, and prevents the ruler from using religion to justify oppression and aggression against human rights. The separation is meant to restore the status of the religion in the souls of the people and the faithful, while paving political regimes' path to democracy - which is in essence a regime of the people, by the people, and for the people.

"[But] there are some among us today who have not learned this lesson, and who want to use the same approach [of linking religion and politics], while expecting different results..."[2]

Religious Zealotry Played A Central Role In Egypt's Political History, And Is Still Very Prominent Today

In another article, published June 25, 2016, Gad wrote: "One of the attributes of a democratic country is secularism - that is, a country that separates religion from politics, treats all religions, faiths, and opinions equally, and does not distinguish among its citizens based on their religion, faith, or sect. The central role [of a democratic country] is to defend the citizen and meet his needs as best it can... A country has no rights, and it is not its role to set out a selection of religions and faiths from which the citizen can choose, and it is not its role to favor one religion over another or elevate one sect at the expense of another.

"Following bitter experience and grinding wars... Europe decided to separate religion from politics, and began experimenting with democracy and progress.

"The situation here in Egypt is completely different. After the semi-liberal period that ended with the 1952 coup, religion was mixed with politics when [Gamal Abdel Nasser's] July regime[3] used religion in the service of politics. The Egypt situation began to deteriorate with the arrival of president Anwar Sadat, whose fate was to replace a charismatic leader. He searched for backing or a base [of support] for his regime, but found none - while nationalist organizations and left-wing [groups] in Egyptian universities worked against him. Therefore, Sadat decided to don a religious hat and establish armed Islamic organizations in Egyptian universities to strike against the Nasserist and left-wing streams...

"Sadat managed to Islamize Egypt's public spaces, and within a few years, he also succeeded in dividing the ranks in Egypt. He described himself as a pious president, and Egypt as a country of faith and religious law. He dubbed himself a Muslim president and Egypt an Islamic country. [As a result,] the violent groups sprang into action and continued killing Copts, especially in Upper Egypt. In the late 1970s, Egypt was on the verge of religious conflagration, and Sadat's assassination by the organizations he himself established [effectively] prevented a [religious] conflagration, civil war, or widespread blood feuds in Egypt.

"[Then came president Hosni] Mubarak, who maintained Sadat's formula - while not cultivating religious extremism, he also did not fight it, except [with regards] to keeping elements of political Islam away from regime circles... [Mubarak] let them use the social [arena] as their playground, and handed them effective control of educational activity and large sections of civil activity as well... He did not act against them unless they came close to the regime in an attempt to topple it. He played a division-of-labor game with the [Muslim] Brotherhood movement. He ensured that it would be present in the political arena, ratified agreements with it, and promoted it - and at the same time presented it as a tyrannical force that was the only alternative to him and his regime, and [thus argued that], since it was an extremist force that hated Israel and the West, then [Mubarak's] regime, as authoritarian and tyrannical as it was, was still better for the West...

"[Religious] zealotry is common in our societies, which are rife with extremism and whose hearts are too narrow to contain the other who is different. [This extremism], whose peak we witnessed during the year of MB rule, abated slightly after the June 30 [Revolution, i.e. the toppling of the Morsi regime], but today is once again noticeably active through bureaucratic institutions and state security apparatuses. There are many examples of this - from the crime against the lady in [the village of] Al-Karam in Al-Minia...[4] to the conspiracy between security elements and Salafis in the village of Al-Bayda in Al-'Amariya [in the Alexandria governorate] meant to prevent Copts from holding prayers.[5] The question is: Is there a way out of this situation of religious madness and moral depravity?"[6]

We Must Choose Between Establishing A Civil State And Preserving A Religious State That Will Eliminate Egypt

In a third article, published June 27, 2016, Gad wrote: "Our country is at an extraordinary stage in its history - it escaped a grand plot during which the [MB] General Guide and his movement caused the country distress by trying to change its identity and turn it into a religious state. The people took [to the streets] on June 30, [2013,] toppled the [General] Guide and his movement, and thwarted a huge plot against the entire region. [The people] expected its national military, which embodied what it [the people] wanted, to assist it in this...

"[The Egyptian people] had high hopes that after the [General] Guide and his movement were removed, a modern civil state could be built. These hopes increased following ongoing [MB] movement crimes against the homeland and citizenry, and also after President 'Abd Al-Fattah Al-Sisi received the keys to the kingdom. The people were impressed by him after he brought about civil national discourse that focused on citizenship and equality. There were high hopes that the president would lay the cornerstone for a civil state, and that its first stage would involve halting the activity of Sadat's rotten fruit by ending the policy of sectarian discrimination and social oppression; acting diligently to establish a commission to prevent discrimination and legislate a church construction law; combating sectarian crimes by a large segment of the bureaucracy and state security apparatuses; and investing serious work in the failing education system... To this moment, we expected some steps towards establishing a modern state, and we have seen nothing but a regression to the way of the despicable Sadat state. No efforts [were devoted] to establishing a lawful state and institutions, and there is nothing new regarding the role of parliament.

"[On the contrary,] we are heading towards establishing the foundation of a religious state; proof of this is the increasing incidents during [Ramadan] this year - [from] police chasing people they said were violating the Ramadan fast during the day, [to] allowing Salafis to operate freely in mosques controlled by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, [to] the trial balloons floated by some [regime] members regarding reconciliation with terrorist movements [meaning the MB][7] and greater acceptance of the Saudi Wahhabi [stream].

"[We are at] a fork in the road and have two options -either turning towards a religious state, which is a path of no return that would eliminate Egypt as we know it, or working to lay the foundations for a modern civil state based on science, law, and [state] institutions. Which way will our country turn?"[8] 




[1] For more on the disappointment with the Al-Sisi regime, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6549, Three Years Later: Egyptian President Al-Sisi's Supporters Express Disappointment, Call His Regime Tyrannical,  July 29, 2016.

[2] Al-Watan (Egypt), June 20, 2016.

[3] Nasser came to power via a military coup in July 1952.

[4] Referring to a May 2016 incident in which an elderly Coptic woman was assaulted and dragged naked through the streets after her son was suspected of having an affair with a Muslim woman.

[5] Referring to the June 2016 arrest and subsequent release of six Copts after they were accused of the unauthorized construction of a building and the performance of religious rituals.

[6] Al-Watan (Egypt), June 25, 2016.

[7] Referring to a June 11, 2016  interview conducted by the daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' with Parliamentary Affairs Minister Magdi Al-Agadi regarding the possibility of reconciling with the MB. Al-Agadi responded that there was nothing wrong with reconciling with those "who do not have blood on their hands" and who did not participate in violent incidents.

[8] Al-Watan (Egypt), June 27, 2016.

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