GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Title of Paper:
“Brothers in arms, strangers in love? The impact of different socio-religious models in Egypt and Saudi Arabia on their bilateral relations.”
Paper Proposal Text :
It has often been argued that Saudi Arabia and Egypt present two different socio-religious models (Humphreys, 1979; Bachtar et al. 2006). Nominally Egypt is a secular, revolutionary, modernist republic, where Shaafi jurisprudence prevails, while Saudi Arabia – an Islamic, anti-revolutionary, conservative kingdom with the domination of Hanbali-Wahhabi school. Despite the temporal stability of these models bilateral relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia have fluctuated substantially since the Nasserist revolution of 1952. The relationship came from a bitter Egyptian-Saudi proxy war in Yemen in 1960s to what might soon be a joint intervention in Yemen in 2015. What is the interconnectedness between political relations and socio-religious models? If political relations change, do the socio-religious models remain intact or change with them? What are the real socio-religious models in both countries in the first place, and how big are the differences between them? Since 2011, what, if any, have been the limitations that these models impose on Egyptian-Saudi relations and, likewise, where do these models add value to them?

The paper will argue that differences between the two models have clear limits and the two countries have often borrowed from each other’s practices within the scope of both official and popular Islams. First, a comparison between the structure of “official Islam” in Egypt and Saudi Arabia will identify the overlapping parts to show how much Saudi Arabia has institutionally reproduced from the Egyptian model (Mouline, 2015), despite the seeming difference of religion being subordinate to the state in Egypt, and more equal to it in Saudi Arabia. After 2011 official Islam in both countries has also ostensibly complied with political requirements of Saudi-Egyptian relations, i.e. the Grand Shaykh of Al-Azhar refused the invitation to visit Iran.

The paper will then examine intersections between “popular Islams” (Waardenburg, 1978), such as Saudi inspiration for some of Egyptian organizations like Ansar as-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya in return for wider outreach platforms and the popularity of Saudi ulama’ and their fatwas issuing houses among Egyptian Salafists. And vice versa, as labour migration between Egypt and Saudi Arabia grew, the popular Islam celebrities travelled with it. (Hirschkind, 2009) So did social phenomena, such as the comportment of women or antagonisms between minorities (Bradley, 2009).

Among the most potent emanations of popular Islam in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), who – persecuted in Egypt in 1950s – found shelter in Saudi Arabia. Yet, when the MB could have brought the Egyptian socio-religious model closer to the Saudi Arabian one by winning parliamentary and presidential elections of 2012 and taking over the reins, the Saudis felt their own socio-religious model and personal power were threatened by a similar MB emanation in Saudi Arabia. The Salafists, however, did not seem to pose a similar threat, even though as a result of the 2011 upheavals in Egypt several Salafi Saudi sheykhs called on Arab leaders to reform (Al-Qudaimi, 2013). On the contrary, as ideological brothers Salafists in Egypt enjoyed support from Saudi Arabia and from the Egyptian government who reached a formal deal with their biggest organizations. The post-2011 MB and Salafism case study is particularly interesting as a concluding part of the paper in that on the one hand it delineates the limits and, on the other, the added value of the socio-religious aspect to Saudi-Egyptian relations.