INTERVIEW: Politics of Ramadan in Egypt

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 7 Apr 2022

Historian Mohamed Afifi explains why politics have long been inseparable from Ramadan festivities in Egypt.


“For Egyptians, every occasion, be it religious or social, is bound to turn into a reason for festivities. And Ramadan in Egypt has always been a lot more about festivities than about anything else,” said historian Mohamed Afifi.

According to Afifi, this special profile of Ramadan in Egypt goes back to the fact that in almost all their history Egyptians’ observation of religion has in one way or another been related to festivities. “The history of Pharaonic Egypt is there to tell us how much Egyptians have always associated religion with festivities,” he said.

“This is why I don’t really subscribe to the argument that it was the Fatimids [the 10th-12th century rulers of Egypt] who introduced the festive profile to Ramadan in Egypt,” Afifi said, adding that while the Fatimids could well be credited for certain festive items like Ramadan lanterns, “I am not really sure this tradition really was started then or whether the tradition of Ramadan pastries was also started by the Fatimids.”

When the Ayoubid Sultan Salaheddin, or Saladin, took over the rule of Egypt in the 12th century, Afifi said, as part of his anti-Fatimid and anti-Shiite policies he abolished a lot of the practices introduced by the Fatimids.

“He even closed down the Al-Azhar Mosque, but all the festivities remained. This was because festivities and religion in Egypt went together for centuries before the rule of the Fatimids and because every single ruler of Egypt from the day of the Arab Conquest [in the seventh century CE] has had to appeal to the masses’ affinity with Ramadan,” Afifi said.

Even later rulers who looked for inspiration from the West continued to observe Ramadan festivities, “even if things would take a different twist with the passing of time,” he said.

Mohamed Ali who ruled Egypt in the 19th century and aimed to split the country from the former Ottoman Empire was certainly one of the first rulers to pursue modernisation. However, Afifi said that “during the rule of Mohamed Ali, all the festivities of Ramadan were observed: roads were lit, Quran recitations in mosques were in order, and food and money were given out.

“This is all about how Ramadan has been Egyptianised.”

Moreover, Afifi added, in modern and contemporary times as in mediaeval times, Ramadan has always been a month where rulers have opted to connect with the public and to put across an image of empathy and piety.

According to Afifi, neither Mohamed Ali nor any of his successors up until former king Farouk, Egypt’s last monarch, ousted in 1952, “would even think about touching any of the Ramadan festivities.

“Here we have to go back to Pharaonic history where the ruler was considered to be a deity on earth. This is how closely politics and religion are connected in the psyche of Egyptians,” he argued.

“With Ramadan being the longest religious season for Muslims, it was always the perfect occasion for rulers to pass on messages that secured public sympathy and support.

“Every ruler of modern and contemporary Egypt has known how to position his religiosity, each in a different way and to a different extent, but always with a political objective,” Afifi argued.

“Building and inaugurating mosques were two key features in this respect, even if the rulers of modern and contemporary Egypt would not have had their names associated with the mosques like the rulers of mediaeval Egypt. But the tradition remained,” he said.

“Observing prayers, especially on Fridays in big public mosques, was another thing that every ruler would stick to during the Muslim holy month. In this respect, there is no difference between the Mamluk rulers, king Farouk, and presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Hosni Mubarak,” Afifi stated.

For particular purposes, rulers might even upscale the use of religion. “An obvious example was king Farouk’s Ramadan Iftars for the public and the famous Iftar that he shared with palace servants,” he added.

The rulers of Egypt, Afifi argued, have not only used religion during the Muslim holy month, Afifi said. “Nasser went to the Al-Azhar Mosque to lobby support during the 1956 Suez War, and he also launched the Quran Karim Radio Station to underscore his Islamic credentials during his feud with the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

President Anwar Al-Sadat “opted to upscale the Islamic mood to counterbalance leftist political influence”.

Above all, Afifi noted, every ruler of Egypt from the Fatimids onwards has aimed to have the upper hand over Al-Azhar. “Traditionally, this was almost always secured, one way or another. In 1925, Al-Azhar expelled Ali Abdel-Razek from its board of senior ulemas [Islamic scholars] after he issued his controversial book Al-Islam was-ussoul al-hukm [Islam and the rules of governance] because king Fouad did not like this book that disputed the religious clout of the ruler.

“But Nasser was the one who went furthest to put Al-Azhar under the full sway of the state,” Afifi stated.

“This is because in Egypt there was never a separation between politics and religion. However, it has been mostly in Ramadan that every ruler has positioned himself to gain as much sympathy as possible from a predominantly Muslim population.”

According to Afifi, it is hard to see this political anchoring in religion going away because it is hard to see Egyptians being anything other than “very fond of religion”.

“For Egyptians, religious feeling is more about traditions and lifestyle than it is about the core of religion itself. This is why in Egypt Ramadan will remain highly festive and always political,” he stated.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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