How Al-Azhar’s grand imam survived the constitutional amendments

As part of the raft of controversial amendments to Egypt’s Constitution slated to be put to a public referendum later this month, a proposed article would have featured a less independent Al-Azhar — Egypt’s highest Islamic institution and an authority on Sunni Islam worldwide — a source close to Al-Azhar’s leadership tells Mada Masr.

However, political mediation has put a halt to the move, which was abandoned in return for a set of compromises from Al-Azhar’s grand imam, Ahmed al-Tayyeb.

According to the source, the proposed article in the constitutional amendments would have given the president the authority to appoint Al-Azhar’s grand imam himself — as was the case before 2012 — and has now been altered so that Al-Azhar scholars retain the power of choosing their own leader.

Other amendments included in the host of proposed changes, which has been preliminarily passed by Parliament ahead of the public referendum, would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to extend his term in office until 2034, and grant the president further control over executive and judicial branches of government.

In return for removing the amendment pertaining to Al-Azhar, Tayyeb acceded to a request by two mediators, Abdullah bin Zayed, foreign minister of the UAE, which has long supported Al-Azhar, and Egypt’s former interim President Adly Mansour. The demand, which came from the presidency, the source explains — was to keep two of Tayyeb’s closest men away from the circles of Al-Azhar’s leadership.

The first is Abbas Shoman, Al-Azhar’s deputy sheikh since 2013 and Tayyeb’s closest associate. Shoman was promoted to the position two years ago, a step up from his original post as a professor at Al-Azhar University. But last year, the government refused to renew his term, prompting Tayyeb to retain him by appointing him as a member of Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars. Shoman was dropped from the council in early February as part of the deal struck with the presidency.

The second is Mohamed Abdel Salam, Tayyeb’s legal advisor, who was removed from his post a few weeks ago, under the pretext of establishing a separate body within Al-Azhar that would assume his duties.

“Shoman and Abdel Salam were two of the most powerful figures in Al-Azhar. Seeing them go will be very difficult for the grand imam,” the source close to Tayyeb says, who explains that bin Zayed and Mansour told Tayyeb that they expect him to understand that there are concerns around figures who have ultra-religious stances and that he should work toward containing them. “But the grand imam knows that the issue is not about the religious views of these two men, nor the unacceptable implicit suggestion that either of them is in contact with the Muslim Brotherhood. The grand imam, himself, is significantly in dispute with the Brotherhood.”

“But he ultimately understands that he needs to make some sacrifices if he does not want to face a constitutional amendment that gives the president the power to remove him,” the source tells Mada Masr. “The grand imam is tired of the ongoing skirmishes between him and the presidency and fears that his removal will normalize the transgressions of Al-Azhar’s independence by the executive authority.”

Tayyeb does not want to see Al-Azhar “serve the president. This would compromise the institution’s dignity and contributions.”

The halted amendment and the removal of the two men point to ongoing tensions between Tayyeb and Sisi, who may have been worried by the threat posed by Al-Azhar’s independence, an issue that was also of concern to his predecessors.

Just ‘a matter of time’ 

Two months after Sisi became a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in January 2010, when Hosni Mubarak appointed him as director of Military Intelligence, Mubarak also appointed Tayyeb as the grand imam of Al-Azhar. Since then, Sisi and Tayyeb have remained, while almost everyone else has exited the political scene.

The grand imam remained in office for full four years after Sisi came to power. In those years, most of Sisi’s closest associates left, and most of the prominent political figures who were active in 2013 — when the military overthrew former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi — have also disappeared.

“It’s a matter of time,” a government source tells Mada Masr. “The president seems to be uncomfortable with Al-Azhar’s independence and the international role that the grand imam plays. [Tayyeb] behaves as though he is not subordinate to the presidency — an issue that clearly bothers the president.”

The government source points to a series of quibbles that appeared to convey a clear message to Tayyeb: His election in 2012 by the Council of Senior Scholars will never absolve him from being held accountable by the state on various matters.

Al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars was established in the first decade of the 20th century as a supreme advisory body for the mosque, the university and the leadership of Al-Azhar. Former President Gamal Abdel Nasser dissolved the council in the early 1960s and took over the right to appoint the grand imam through a new law that would remain in force up until Mubarak’s presidency. But the council made a strong comeback under SCAF — who feared that the new Islamist president would take over the institution — when Parliament passed a bill in 2012 stipulating that the grand imam of Al-Azhar would be elected by its members.

Although the council can consist of up to 40 members, the grand imam, tasked with forming it, only chose 20 people when he reinstated it in July 2012. “This was a smart decision on the part of Tayyeb to ensure that all council members were people he was close to and could count on for support,” says Amr Ezzat, a researcher in the civil liberties unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. But members of the council must still be approved by the president, according to the law.

Ezzat says that despite Tayyeb’s compromise of removing two strongmen from his closest circles, Sisi might still insist on getting rid of the grand imam — who, according to the law, cannot be removed from his post by the executive authority — one way or another. For example, there could be a new set time-limit to the grand imam’s term, or a requirement for re-electing the grand imam by the Council of Senior Scholars could be introduced — with simultaneous pressure on the council not to endorse Tayyeb for a new term.

“It is unclear what steps might be taken to remove Tayyeb in the future,” Ezzat continued. “I do not believe that the draft law that PM Mohamed Abu Hamed is currently working on [to amend the Al-Azhar-related constitutional articles] is sufficiently developed to remove Tayyeb, but of course it could develop into a more serious proposal that opens the door for his eventual removal.”

Both the government source and the source close to Al-Azhar’s leadership agree that one of the major factors that will determine the upcoming chapter in the thorny relationship between Tayyeb and the executive authority is the grand imam’s position vis-a-vis the constitutional amendments.

The source close to Al-Azhar’s leadership says that the grand imam might call on citizens to participate in the referendum, but will refrain from explicitly endorsing the amendments. “It seems unlikely that he will follow the footsteps of Pope Tawadros and call on citizens to vote in favor of the amendments, which is what Sisi expects of him. But he will not criticize the president nor the amendments outright,” the source explains.

Ezzat similarly rules out the possibility that Tayyeb will escalate the issue, especially given the fact that he does not usually partake in such direct confrontations.

‘You’ve exhausted me, honorable imam’

During a public event in 2017, Sisi addressed Tayyeb directly, saying, “You’ve exhausted me, honorable imam,” in the context of the president’s directives to revamp national religious discourse in his own public attempt to fight extremism. Sisi’s address was followed by a media campaign against Tayyeb blaming him for hindering the process of ridding religious discourse of extremist tendencies.

During the same exchange, Sisi demanded Tayyeb end the practice of verbal divorce, which is common among Muslim couples, taking Tayyeb by surprise, according to the source close to the leadership. The grand imam did not feel comfortable with the president’s interference in Al-Azhar’s legal interpretations of religious scripture, especially because he felt that he was given an executive order on air without any sufficient reason, since most divorce cases in Egypt are not conducted verbally, the source adds.

Tayyeb did not immediately react to Sisi’s demand, but the Council of Senior Scholars published a statement a few days after the incident asserting that “the phenomenon of divorce will not end by demanding some form of documentation or a certificate … The correct antidote is supporting and protecting the youth from drugs and empowering them through responsible media, art, culture and serious education.”

“This was the beginning of the obvious tension between Tayyeb and Sisi,” the source close to Al-Azhar says. “And it is when Adly Mansour started acting as a mediator, informing the grand imam that the executive authority is not happy with the language and tone of the statement because of the implicit blame on the state for its economic policies, despite the state’s best efforts to mitigate the circumstances after years of political turmoil.”

But repeated hints from the president about Al-Azhar’s failure to renew religious discourse and a persisting media campaign against the grand imam ultimately pushed Tayyeb to move back to his village in Upper Egypt in the winter of 2017 to signal his dismay at the situation. At the time, village residents gathered at Tayyeb’s residence and expressed their solemn support for him, the source recounts.

“I heard that there were some protests around Tayyeb’s house to support him, and I also heard from a friend of mine who works in a daily newspaper that there were instructions not to mention anything about these protests,” the source says.

However, mediation by Mansour, as well as by figures in the UAE, calmed the tension on both sides, according to the source, and the grand imam said that he would distance himself from political discourse. He expected, however, that political and executive figures also refrain from expressing their opinions about religious affairs without resorting to Al-Azhar first, the source adds.

But for the source, the appeasement was only superficial. The grand imam, according to him, knew that the issue was not about renewing religious discourse. “Despite its numerous requests, the presidency has never exactly proposed a specific idea of what this new discourse should look like. The imam cannot do what state-sponsored media is asking him to do, which is to omit certain texts from heritage books. The imam does not have the academic, literary, or religious right to do so, but what he can do, and what he is currently doing, is review these texts, (which some consider to be ones that incite violence and discrimination) and provide alternative explanations and information about their historical context, as well as reject extremist interpretations of them,” the source explains.

“The grand imam is frustrated with anyone who thinks Islam is inherently violent, because violence is not just perpetrated by Muslims. And he feels dismayed that, when he discusses this matter with a high-ranking religious figure, such as Pope Francis, he is heard and understood, but in Egypt he is constantly attacked by media figures, which is unjustifiable in his opinion.”

Ezzat says that the executive authority’s efforts to make Tayyeb subordinate to the presidency do not actually aim at the unspecified goal of renewing religious discourse or preserving the civilian nature of the state. According to Ezzat, if the presidency truly wanted a “civilian state,” then Al-Azhar would need to become an independent university and religious institution, that does not issue binding decisions on public matters (such as personal status laws) or review books before publishing. Al-Azhar, for example, has a role in the Egyptian Medical Syndicate for procedures related to sex reassignment surgeries, as well as a role in the media assessing the content of TV shows. Nothing of this power, Ezzat argues, will be affected by making the grand imam more subordinate to the executive authority.

The tension, is hence, a question of power dynamics.

The source in the government explains that the root of the conflict between the presidency and the grand imam is spelt out in the government’s uneasiness with the role that the imam plays on the international level as an independent figure, especially with regards to his relationship to the UAE, which is one of the biggest supporters of the current regime in Egypt.

According to him, “The UAE diligently supports Al-Azhar, and it has been doing so for a long time because it does not want the hardline Salafi wings of Saudi Arabia to control religious discourse. But after Mohammed bin Salman became the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, he began being even more supportive of Al-Azhar than the UAE was, perhaps because Saudi Arabia wants to make up for the negative reputation that Al-Azhar had acquired in the kingdom [which is dominated by more ultraconservative voices.] Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have great trust in the grand imam’s ability to tackle extremist ideas without causing disturbances.”

The government source recounts that different bodies in Cairo closely observed events held by the Muslim Council of Elders that took place in Abu Dhabi in early February. Founded by the UAE in 2014, the council became a rival body to the International Association of Muslim Scholars, which, at the time, was headed by Yusuf al-Qaradawi — who has close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood — and which Tayyeb, among others, believed to want to diminish the role of Al-Azhar.

At the Muslim Council of Elders forum, Tayyeb met with Pope Francis and was warmly welcomed by the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. A source inside Egypt’s Radio and Television Union confirms that there were instructions not to give too much attention to Tayyeb’s visit to the Emirates, however.

Then, some Gulf media outlets broadcast Tayyeb’s meeting with Saudi’s bin Salman last December. The grand imam was performing umra when one of the king’s brothers passed away. “The grand imam went to the funeral, as he strongly appreciates Saudi Arabia’s support for Al-Azhar. Afterwards, the king sent him an official invitation,” the source close to Al-Azhar says. Once more, Egyptian media refrained from broadcasting the meeting between bin Salman and Tayyeb. Shortly afterward, the president issued a decree prohibiting senior officials from traveling abroad on official missions without obtaining the president’s approval.

A longstanding struggle for independence

According to a source who used to work in the Mubarak presidential office, ever since Tayyeb became the grand imam toward the end of Mubarak’s rule, he has been a quiet, studious man who understood the inevitably close relationship he had to manage with the executive authority. Tayyeb did not hesitate, for instance, to agree to join the formerly ruling National Democratic Party’s Policies Committee in 2010.

In the early days of the January 2011 revolution, Tayyeb expressed in statements his utmost support for Mubarak’s rule and his rejection of the demonstrations. According to a source who was close to the ruling circles in that period, Tayyeb’s statements were made following an explicit request by one of Mubarak’s men to both the grand imam and the late Pope Shenouda III, who, in turn, also spoke in support of Mubarak against the protests.

But matters changed after the 2011 revolution and the power vacuum that followed it.

When Mubarak stepped down, the executive authority no longer had a stronghold on Al-Azhar, especially in the period immediately following the uprising. Tayyeb was then prompted to reevaluate his position and keep away from politics in order to maintain Al-Azhar’s status as an independent religious institution and university.

But this position didn’t last for too long. “He had to be re-engaged because he was concerned by Morsi’s attempt to force certain people — who were in favor of replacing Tayyeb with Qaradawi — into the Council of Senior Scholars. The Muslim Brotherhood sought to control Al-Azhar intellectually — the group was explicitly against the multiplicity of doctrines that Al-Azhar is keen on permitting,” the source close to Al-Azhar says. The source highlights Tayyeb’s insistence on keeping Al-Azhar open to all Sunni doctrines, and even on discussing certain Shia ones, which is considered unacceptable by the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to the source, Tayyeb was aware that the Muslim Brotherhood tried to remove him through a series of incidents, one of which took place in the spring of 2013 when Al-Azhar students protested against expired lunch meals served to them, and called for the removal of the grand imam.

In an interview in early 2013, a Muslim Brotherhood leader criticized Tayyeb for “not standing with the revolution from the beginning,” arguing that he was a “remnant” of the Mubarak regime.

During the tumultuous summer of 2013, the grand imam attended meetings held by state officials to discuss the political turmoil, as demands for Morsi’s ouster were rising publicly. One of those meetings was held by Sisi, then minister of defense, who wanted to discuss political options following the June 30 protests. Later, the grand imam joined Pope Tawadros II, politician Mohamed al-Baradei, as well as police and military officers on July 3, gathering around Sisi when he announced Morsi’s.

According to the source in Al-Azhar, Sisi was always keen on listening to Tayyeb’s opinions, while Tayyeb was keen to show his support to the minister of defense.

But the grand imam was angered by the Republican Guard headquarters clashes, when security forces attacked and killed a number of Morsi supporters, who were protesting and threatening to storm the Republican Guard headquarters in July 2013. According to the source close to the leadership, Tayyeb’s anger was quelled by certain state officials, who assured him that a security error had occurred and would not be repeated.

But the following month came the bloody dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in — which left 607 protesters and eight police officers dead, according to figures published by the June 30 fact-finding committee established by Mansour, although other organizations have presented significantly higher figures. Tayyeb, who was not aware of the dispersal plan according to three of his assistants, issued a verbal statement on Egyptian television condemning the attack and declaring that “all bloodshed is sinful.” According to a state television producer who worked there at the time, the statement was aired once and then banned from broadcast again. 

After that, he retreated to his village in Upper Egypt in protest. According to one of Tayyeb’s former assistants, after the grand imam left to his village in August 2013, he started receiving numerous phone calls from different Al-Azhar figures, who expressed their worry that his absence would open the door for political interference in the institution’s affairs.

However, the surrounding legal changes had been pointing in the opposite direction. In January 2012, under SCAF-rule, Tayyeb was able to restore the Council of Senior Scholars when Al-Azhar’s law was amended. This was the most crucial shift, which allowed Al-Azhar to again become an independent entity, whose grand imam and mufti were no longer appointed by the president.

The 2012 Constitution added broader mandates to the council. Article 4 stipulated that the council was “the authority on matters relating to Islamic Sharia,” an addition that, according to a source in the Salafi Nour Party during the time of drafting the Constitution in 2012, was going to be used to challenge certain laws deemed “culturally liberal.” Some of those laws were concerned with women’s rights to custody, divorce and travel without her husband’s permission, as well as those pertaining to family planning and female genital mutilation.

According to a member of the 50-member committee that drafted the 2014 Constitution following Morsi’s ouster, eliminating Article 4 was “one of the issues that was raised and faced very little objection.” More powers were also taken from the Council of Senior Scholars, such as the power to “decide on religious matters.” 

From there on, since the take-over of the military appointed government in the latter half of 2013, followed by Sisi’s rule, Tayyeb began seeing substantive attempts to take away Al-Azhar’s power.

Asmahan Soliman 

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