Al-Azhar post-June 30: An ongoing dispute interrupted by a brief alliance
Four years after being a key member in the military-led alliance to end the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Azhar’s ongoing tensions with Egypt’s executive authority rise to the surface

Four years have passed since the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi on June 30, 2013, alongside Muslim Brotherhood rule. Since then, Egypt has faced important political transformations that have translated into economic and social change. On the fourth anniversary of this crucial point in the country’s political history, we give some focus to the different players who made June 30, 2013 possible, namely: the pro-democracy political forces, the Salafi political movement, the Coptic communities and their church and Al-Azhar. What did they want back then, and where are they today?

This year has seen the emergence of tensions between Al-Azhar and the presidency, making headlines across the country.

These tensions obscure the image of July 3, 2013 when Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then the defense minister, stood shoulder to shoulder as the latter announced the ouster of Morsi.

Tayyeb was not alone in his support of the military commander as he uprooted the Brotherhood. But of all the players involved in the ouster, including the Coptic Church, a number of civilian political groups and Salafis among others, Al-Azhar seemed the most reserved.

In comments made on the day of Sisi’s announcement, Tayyeb referenced a political division between “two rival groups,” talking about the need to respect what he called “the sanctity of blood.”

On June 5, two days after the initial announcement and following a series of violent clashes between Morsi supporters and detractors in Tahrir Square, Tayyeb issued a second, strongly worded statement cautioning that the incidents were “strife intended to divert our heroic Armed Forces from their national mission. We wish to stress to you all that religion and patriotism are innocent of any blood shed.”

Tayyeb made an appearance once again, three days later, to unequivocally condemn the killing of dozens of Morsi supporters on July 8 who had clashed with military forces in front of the Republican Guards Club headquarters. He claimed that Morsi’s supporters were martyrs of “pure blood,” and called for an urgent investigation into the incident. He also called for the formation of a committee “for national reconciliation which does not exclude anyone, since the homeland does not belong to one party, but rather to everyone and can accommodate everyone.”

His fourth speech following the ouster coincided with the violent dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda sit-ins on August 14. He asserted that Al-Azhar only learned of the decision to break up the protests through the media.

Belal Abdallah, a political scientist studying at Al-Azhar University, believes that Tayyeb’s statements starting from July 4 do not point to an alliance, but rather highlight “the foundational moment for a schism.”

He says that Tayyeb appears to have felt betrayed when his demands of an end to political violence, early presidential elections and a shortened transitional period were not met. In turn, he adds, “Sisi felt that Tayyeb was being neutral and unjustifiably treating a state that fights terrorism as equal to the sponsors of that terrorism.”

Tensions between the executive authority and Al-Azhar resurfaced somewhat in April 2016 when the former exerted more direct control over mosques and imams through the Endowments Ministry. The ministry decided to enforce unified Friday sermons and referred many imams for investigation if they did not abide by the rules.

But the schism was mostly sidelined by the military, Abdallah says, until Sisi reignited tensions when he took up the issue of verbal divorce earlier this year. During a January speech he called for the abolition of the practice of verbal divorce, which Al-Azhar which has previously voiced support for. “What do you think, grand sheikh?” Sisi asked in jest. “You are giving me a hard time.”  

The state has endeavored portray these issues as a struggle between an executive authority trying to introduce a new religious discourse and a reactionary, conservative religious institution.

But Al-Azhar retains a powerful in regards to advancing an official religious discourse. The past years have seen the expansion of trials for contempt of religion, particularly for opponents of the institutions curricula. It lodges a complaint against Islamic scholar Islam al-Beheiry for his criticism of Islamic jurisprudence, directly causing his imprisonment for one year on contempt of religion charges.

Through its Islamic Research Center Al-Azhar also has control over the publishing of anything related to Islamic heritage in Egypt, and the ability to confiscate many creative works it believes contradict Islamic teachings, as per the laws governing the institution.

Al-Azhar’s power over religious life may be partially ascribed to its presence among geographically diverse traditional and conservative social networks, which were used to strengthen former President Hosni Mubarak’s position, particularly during parliamentary elections. According to Abdallah, these networks have grown increasingly disenchanted with their marginalization under Egypt’s new military elites.

Al-Azhar remains legally powerful as well, a condition enabled during the brief period of Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Amendments made to Law 109/1961 during this time gave Al-Azhar its biggest winning streak in its ongoing, four-year struggle with the executive authority. In February 2012 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces introduced changes which gave the institution greater autonomy, ending the president’s ability to appoint the grand sheikh. Under the amended law the sheikh is selected by the Council of Senior Scholars, whose members are in turn chosen by the institution’s head.

The amendments also reintroduced the council, which had been dissolved by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1961 to bring Al-Azhar under the full control of the executive authority.

Nasser’s attempts to extend control over Al-Azhar unfolded after the 1952 passing of the agricultural reform law, through which Al-Azhar’s endowments were taken over by the government bringing an end to the institution’s financial independence which dated back centuries. Now Al-Azhar relies on state financing, which amounted to LE12 billion last year.

Nathan Brown, professor of political science at the George Washington University who researches, told Mada Masr in a previous interview that the state’s fear of a possible takeover by the Brotherhood of Al-Azhar was the driving force behind these amendments.

“The change made in Al-Azhar’s leadership structure by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was designed to keep Al-Azhar independent from the Brotherhood, but it works regardless of who is president. It makes the sheikh and the senior leadership structurally autonomous, like the Supreme Constitutional Court,” he said. “But it does more than affect the structure. It gives the grand sheikh a body of senior scholars that he can call on to give himself much more symbolic strength.”

The legal protection of Al-Azhar’s independence was further reinforced in the 2014 Constitution, which granted impunity to Al-Azhar’s grand sheikh.

Some considered this degree of independence excessive, compelling member of Parliament Mohamed Abou Hamed to prepare a bill amending the system for appointing the the grand sheikh and Council of Senior Scholars, returning power to the hands of the president. Parliament’s religious committee, whose members visited Al-Azhar in May alongside other MPs, rejected the draft claiming it targeted the grand sheikh.

Despite Abou Hamed’s assertions that Parliament can not step back from discussing the bill, it has not been addressed for almost two months. Only a few days after the delegation visited Al-Azhar, parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel Aal remarked on May 8 that the bill was a “closed page” and a “constitutional aberration.”

According to Abdallah, “The state is unable to use constitutional and legal tools in the face of Al-Azhar because of its constitutional status.”

“It is also difficult to use political means,” he adds, “because of the strong social base that Al-Azhar has and the institutional strength of the Council of Senior Scholars.”

Translated by Aida Seif al-Dawla

Mai Shams El-Din 

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