COVID-19 has led governments across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to take a number of measures to battle the pandemic. Many of these actions directly related to religious practices such as the cancelation of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, closing down mosques and amending the call to prayer from the usual “hayya alas-salah” or “come to prayer” to “salu fi buyutikum” or “pray in your homes”.
As the advent of the pandemic coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, the decision to close mosques also meant that Muslims could not congregate for longer prayers (taraweeh) or spend consecutive days and nights at mosques (i’tikaf). Supported by the World Health Organization, such measures are no doubt sensitive, leading political regimes to seek the support of Islamic religious authorities when tacking such decisions.
The pandemic has hence put religious authorities in front of a dual challenge. First, how to support state measures without compromising their religious credentials and legitimacy. Second, how to retain their central position within the religious market following the closure of mosques. Responses to these challenges are likely to have a lasting impact on the relationship between state and religious institutions even after the end of the COVID-19 crisis.
Across North Africa, the state engaged religious authorities to support COVID-19 measures in order to ensure popular compliance with preventive measures such as curfews and lockdowns. Given the low levels of trust that state institutions enjoy in these counties, religious authorities can play an important legitimising role. According to the fifth wave of the Arab Barometer poll, only 28.6 per cent of people in Morocco and 19.8 per cent of Tunisian citizens trust their governments, while trust in religious leaders reached 43.2 per cent in Morocco, 31.6 per cent in Tunisia and 46.3 per cent in Algeria.
Moreover, support from religious authorities for measures such as mosques closures can help prevent other, more oppositionist religious groups from attacking the government under the pretext of a supposed “war on Islam”. This is the case particularly in Egypt, where the regime has been at war with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) since the ouster of former president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. MB affiliated media outlets have been insisting that the Egyptian regime’s struggle is not with the Muslim Brotherhood but with Islam itself long before the COVID-19 crisis began.
 World Health Organization (WHO), Safe Ramadan Practices in the Context of the COVID-19. Interim Guidance, 15 April 2020, https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/331767.
 Arab Barometer, Arab Barometer Wave V (2018-2019), 2019, https://www.arabbarometer.org/?p=798.
 “Al-Shari’- al-Masri” [The Egyptian Street], in El Sharq TV, different episodes.
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This blog first appeared on the IAI site.
Author: Georges Fahmi is Research Fellow at the Middle East Directions Programme of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute (EUI) – IAI.
Image courtesy of Jeremy Yap via Unsplash.
The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ETTG.