Factoring in security, economics in building mosques in Egypt

The new security mosques attract all social classes, especially celebrities and businessmen, who prefer them for their enormous capacity, their discreteness and their secured access.
Sunday 10/02/2019
A general view of al-Fattah al-Aleem Mosque in the New Administrative Capital (NAC), 45km east of Cairo. (Reuters)
Sociology of architecture. A general view of al-Fattah al-Aleem Mosque in the New Administrative Capital (NAC), 45km east of Cairo. (Reuters)

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has officially inaugurated al-Fattah al-Aleem Mosque and the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of Nativity in the new administrative capital, 45km east of Cairo. The ceremonies took place amid heightened security measures, following the death of a police officer who was trying to defuse an explosive device near a church in Cairo. Sisi was accompanied by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was on an official visit to Cairo.

Egyptian security institutions’ building of mosques, with their distinctive architectural designs, is raising questions about the motives. After all, official statistics indicate there were 102,186 large mosques and 30,623 small ones in Egypt at the end of 2017.

Some are trying to give political dimensions to the building of mosques and connecting them with the security forces. The purpose, they say, is to break claims by extremist organisations that there is an inherited animosity between worshippers and some state institutions. The latter wish to pass the message that they are not trying to trap worshippers but they do encourage them and provide them with places of worship.

That hypothesis can be applied to al-Fattah al-Aleem Mosque, believed to be the largest in the Middle East and which was constructed under the supervision of the Egyptian Army Corps of Engineers. Building the mosque at the centre of the new administrative city is an Islamic concept. The mosque is in the middle of a huge area from which radiate the main avenues of the city, which is expected to accommodate 6.5 million inhabitants.

A security source said the purpose of the security institutions, the army and police is to have these mosques and events halls attached to them serve as communication bridges with different social classes and a platform for disseminating Islamic teachings of moderation and tolerance.

Egyptian security institutions continue to expand their policy of building mosques in high-end neighbourhoods and guarding them with huge gates and iron fences. For the first time, Egyptians are witnessing the establishment of fortified mosques. They are also building gigantic banquet halls to handle thousands of people at a time.

The security source pointed out that “the mosques established by the security institutions are in new areas where there are not enough mosques and thus serve the need of the local population. The security measures inside and in the vicinity of the mosques are necessitated by the presence among worshippers of top security officials and celebrities who insist on using the banquet facilities for their events. The security measures are also connected to the state’s war on terrorism.”

Egyptian security forces have suffered from having mosques being controlled by political Islamic groups. Mosques have served as the rallying point for pro-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators, who often clashed violently with the security forces and with ordinary citizens.

In Egypt, it is difficult to separate politics and building mosques. During the socialist era under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egyptian Islamists accused the state of being anti-Muslim. Their accusations were swept away by Nasser’s mosque-building campaign. It was the largest such campaign in the history of Egypt. In addition to the then existing 11,000 mosques, 10,000 new ones were erected.

President Anwar Sadat, who called himself the Faithful President, was also keen on building mosques. He was, however, more interested in expanding major Sufi mosques, such as Sayed al-Badawi Mosque in Tanta, and in attending religious celebrations there. Former President Hosni Mubarak preferred to build small mosques and used them as portals for employment opportunities.

It is possible that the new security mosques in Egypt have been designed with the closed communities or compounds in mind. About one-third of the area was reserved for a park and there were plenty of parking spaces. Wedding ceremonies in the adjacent banquet halls are accessible to guests only and the surrounding areas often serve as photo-shooting locations. The distinctive and ornate architectural style of the halls has made them very popular.

As having expensive wedding parties in fancy halls became widespread, building attractive banquet halls next to mosques became a worthwhile investment. The new security mosques, therefore, attract all social classes, especially celebrities and businessmen, who prefer them for their enormous capacity, their discreteness and their secured access.

Rashad Abdu, an economist and chairman of the Egyptian Forum for Strategic Studies, said this lucrative activity coincided with the economic thinking of post-revolution governments. Ministries are encouraged to supplement their state budgets with revenue-generating ventures.

Security measures in the security mosques are quite strict. Beverages in metal cans or glass bottles are disallowed. Only paper- or carton-wrapped food is allowed. Abdu said ministries in Egypt began competing to reduce financial dependence on the state.

Providing services, such as hosting celebrations, is particularly attractive to them because it does not involve great financial risk and does not require a large labour force or expensive production tools. The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities has even taken the unprecedented step of allowing concerts next to Islamic and pharaonic monuments.