Egyptian Muslims are frequently devotees of Sufism, a mystical interpretation of Islam generally catering to shrine veneration, popular cultic rituals, and close ties between a Sufi master (shaykh) and disciple (murid) There are some 77 Sufi orders (tarikas) throughout the country, involving some 10 million followers.
These trends are similar in terms of the requirements to join and to become a Sheikh of a Tarika. Sufist trends in Egypt are governed by Law 118/1976.
The Highest Council of Sufist Trends is the Supreme Sufi Council, composed of 10 elected members from among the Sheikhs of the different tarikas plus 5 appointed members representing Al-Azhar, the Ministry of Religious Endowments, Local Administration, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Culture.
The Council’s decisions are taken by the majority. In order to approve a new tarika, a majority alone is not enough. The Scientific and Cultural Committee must review the petition to create a new tarika, establish the genealogy of the Sheikhs of the new tarika to the Prophet, and make sure that there is continuity with previous Sheikhs who adopted and practised the same tarika.
Given their commitment to non-interference in politics, Sufi orders enjoyed freedom during the Mubarak regime, and they regularly expressed their support of Mubarak, his son, and the National Democratic Party.
After the departure of Mubarak, Sufists complained of conspiracies, intimidation, and violence by Salafists groups. In a stand organized by the General Mashyakha of Sufist Trends, in the Al-Hussein neighbourhood, they called for support of the SCAF against the “Salafi thugs” and also called for the creation of Sufi committees to protect the shrines.
The egalitarian, charitable, peaceful, and friendly ethos of Sufism encouraged some in the U.S. foreign policy establishment to think about encouraging Sufism as a counterweight to the violent ethos of such radical and Salafi groups as Al-Qaeda which adopt varying forms of Takfiri and Jihadi interpretations of Islam.
For instance, a 2007 report by the Rand Corporation advised Western governments to "harness" Sufism, saying its adherents were "natural allies of the West".
According to some analysts, Sufism has positive and negative attributes that both aid and restrict peaceful political participation. The values of forgiveness, unity, cooperation and continuity are positive values that support political participation.
But the values of submission, blind obedience, and dogmatic following do not support democratic politics and contribute to the creation of charismatic leadership and totalitarian rule.
In 2011, two Sufi trends in Egypt announced their intention to form political parties. The Rifa’i Tarika, the largest Sufi order in Egypt, announced its intention to create Sout Al-Horeyya (The Voice of Freedom Party), and the ‘Azmeyya Tarika, which has 1.5 million followers, announced its intention to create Tahrir Masr (The Liberation of Egypt Party).
These announcements have created disagreements within the Sufi orders as led by the Grand Sheikh of the Sufi Orders in Egypt Abdel Hady El-Kassab. In an interview with Islam Online, Sheikh Kassaby mentioned two reasons for this rejection.
First, establishing a Sufi political party is currently illegal. Second, Sufis should not be political leaders, but rather should be leaders of religious thought. He also warned that involvement in party politics by religious groups could lead to contestations that in turn could lead to major societal problems.
According to newsreports, Sheikh Al-Kassaby stressed that he would not accept Sufism as the basis for creating political parties.
He argued that if there is a role for Sufi orders in political activism, it should be focused on awakening the consciousness of the people to work hard and excel in moments of crisis through promoting the ethical codes and the application of the Quran and Sharia.
At the same time, Al-Kassaby noted that the general coalition of Sufi orders would not object to individual members of Sufi orders running for offices. However, Sufi orders should remain religious bodies that have no role in political parties.
In the same interview, Sheikh Mohamed El-Shahawy, Sheikh of the Shahawy Order, agreed that politics should be left to politicians. He said that the intention to establish political parties among some Salafis was based on their perception that this will allow protecting the Sufi orders from persecution by Salafis.
However, according to El-Shahawy, the general coalition of Sufi orders is a sufficient enough forum for representation.
On the other side of the issue, as presented by Islamonline, Sheikh Alaa Abul Azayem, the Sheikh of Al-Azmeyya Tareeka, which had announced its intention to create the Liberation of Egypt Party, objected to these criticisms by arguing that the creation of political parties aims to protect Sufi orders.
This is necessary, according to Abul Azayem, due to the gaining ground of the Brotherhood and the Salafis in the political landscape. He said that if Salafis reach power, they could issue a law abolishing the General Coalition of Sufi Orders.
They could even issue a decree banning Sufi activism, according to Abul Azayem. He also noted that the Liberation of Egypt Party will be open to all Egyptians including Copts.
Sheikh Al-Taher Al-Hashamy, Sheikh of Al-Hashemeyya Tareeka, said that any Sufi order should be able to establish a political party and that some orders believe that they are able to spread virtue better through a political party.
Resentment to al-Kassaby has continued, and there are demands to change the elections laws of Sufi orders and to put term limits on the Grand Sheikh. Alaa Abul Azayyem is leading these objections, and the presidential decree did not serve to ameliorate the contestation between Al-Kassaby and Abul Azayem over the top Sufi office.
Through their websites and magazines, Al-Azmeyya Order has led a campaign against Al-Kassaby, claiming that his appointment as Grand Sheikh of the Sufi Orders involved a conspiracy involving the state security apparatus and the now-disbanded National Democratic Party of which Al-Kassaby was a member.
The ‘Azmeyya order’s publication is The Eternal Happiness Magazine (Magalet Al-Sa’ada Al-Abadeyya). Among the smaller Sufi orders, allegiance to Al-Kassaby or Abul Azayem is divided.
For instance, the Dessoukeyya Mohammadeyya Order is the 77th order approved on March 24th, 2007 by the Supreme Sufi Council.
Sheikh Mukhtar Ali Muhammad Al-Dessouki, Sheikh of the new order, took the side of Sheikh Al-Kassaby in the contestation between Al-Kassaby and Abul Azayem over the seat of the Grand Sheikh of Sufi Orders.