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New Suez Canal is 'victory from God,' state-sanctioned sermon tells Egyptians

'Egyptians within the country and abroad must support this mega-project,' the Friday sermon told worshippers
Smoke from Egyptian army planes during a fly-over at the New Suez Canal opening ceremony on 6 August (AFP)

A day after the grand opening of the New Suez Canal's in Egypt, the state-approved Friday sermon told Muslim worshippers that the new waterway is a "victory from God," and that a "true Muslim" would support the project.

According to the text of the sermon, available on the Religious Endowments Ministry's website, Egyptians at home and abroad "must" support the New Suez Canal, a mega-project that aims to boost Egypt's shipping income.

“The New Suez Canal dazzled the world, and proved once again that the Egyptian citizen is creating change and development, by the grace of Almighty God. This is the state of the true Muslim."

"The New Suez Canal was a victory from Almighty God to the Egyptian people, and a message from Him of the triumph over the enemies of God and the nation, who wanted to defeat Egypt and push it back into the past. These enemies have learned a lesson about the strength and will of the Egyptian people."

"Egyptians within the country and abroad must support this mega-project, which by the grace of God will help realise comprehensive development in all fields.”

Source: Religious Endowments Ministry's website

Since January 2014, the Religious Endowments Ministry, the body that controls mosques and religious donations, has obliged preachers to stick to a set topic during their Friday sermons, and has published a guide text each week.

This Friday’s topic was “The opening of the New Suez Canal as a model for will and work,” and the guide text focused on the question of work and economic development within Islam in celebration of the project’s opening.

The lengthening and widening of the Suez Canal, a waterway originally opened in 1846 and which carries much of the world's maritime trade, was financed mostly through the purchase of investment certificates by millions of ordinary Egyptians.

Friday’s sermon praised citizens for what it called their "unusual trust" in the project, which aims to speed up shipping and net an extra $8 bn annually for Egypt's struggling economy by 2023.

The project, originally slated to take three years, was completed in just one year after it was expedited by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Friday’s official sermon, delivered the day after the expanded waterway’s opening ceremony, sought to draw parallels between the project and the “Battle of the Trench,” a historic fight between early Muslims and “heretics”.

In 627, the Battle of the Trench saw the Prophet Muhammad order his followers to build a trench as quickly as possible to protect the Saudi city of Mecca from non-Muslim aggressors.

Beneath a sub-heading titled “Mutual love between the leader [the Prophet Muhammad] and his soldiers,” the sermon notes that the project was successful in part thanks to “the love shown to the leader by listening to and obeying all his orders”.

Despite the successful opening of the Suez Canal, says scholar John Esposito, the parallels drawn between the modern-day project and the actions of Islam’s most revered prophet could be an attempt to deflect criticism, amid concerns that it could fail to deliver the promised boost Egypt’s economy desperately needs.

“He is responding to criticism after spending billions of dollars on this project, while Egypt’s economy is in the doldrums,” said John Esposito, professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

“He is trying to legitimise this grand project, which is not in fact a religious action at all.”

Attempts to use religious rhetoric to legitimise state actions are nothing new for Sisi, said Esposito.

“He has played the religious card from the very beginning. When he announced the coup, he had on stage with him the Sheikh of al-Azhar and the Coptic Pope.

“He recognises and is responding to the reality in Egypt, which is that most Egyptian Muslims see Islam as an important part of their identity. What Sisi is doing is nothing new,” said Esposito, noting that the president is the latest in a long line of Egyptian leaders to couch their actions in religious language.

However, said the academic, “what is new is the degree to which he is using it,” at a time when the government is pursuing a crackdown against political Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and preachers deemed too politically divisive.

Last month, Mohammed Jebril, a preacher educated at the prestigious al-Azhar University, was forbidden from preaching and threatened with prosecution under anti-terror laws after “straying from prayers into politics,” according to the Religious Endowments Minister.

Jebril, who has previously made statements supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, had used a packed Ramadan service to decry what he called “corrupt broadcasters and politicians”.

The following day, the Religious Endowments Ministry said it would dismiss any preachers who criticised the army or the police during their sermons to mark Eid, the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

“They fear the religious factor in the hands of others,” said Esposito.

“Sisi has come to define “good” Islam – anything outside of that is portrayed as “bad” Islam, which must be crushed.”