July 18, 2019

While the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar Ahmad al-Tayeb has been absent from the country for surgery in Germany over the past month, his organisation has not been mentioned in the media.

Over the past few months, the media has not dealt extensively with the Al-Azhar Foundation or its Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb, however when it is covered the news is negative. Opponents say that the negative media coverage and the systematic blackout happened under the orders of the Egyptian president, who is engaged in a struggle with Al-Azhar and its grand Sheikh for control.

Over the past several years General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has succeeded in extending his influence and dominance over most of the state’s institutions and breaking down its power so that it can exert control over it. However, five years into al-Sisi’s presidency, Al-Azhar’s fort remains far from the powerful general.

The dispute between al-Tayyib and al-Sisi began before al-Sisi became president, following the breaking of the Rabaa al-Adawia sit-in of the supporters of the late President Mohamed Morsi. Part of the dispute was linked to religious issues, others to politics and power.

Al-Azhar’s repeated rejection of al-Sisi’s demands has angered the general, who is determined to control the various state institutions. This anger prompted several of his loyalists to try and marginalise Al-Azhar.

Al-Sisi appointed Mohammed Mukhtar Jumaa, the Minister of Awqaf (Islamic Affairs), to oppose and resist the views of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar. He tried to strengthen the Ministry of Awqaf by granting the Ministry of Awqaf the authority of the fatwa, a step that provoked Al-Azhar. In addition, the Minister of Awqaf also tried to extend his control over preaching and mosques.

Historically, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar was the ruler of all religious institutions, and has a place in the hearts of all Egyptians. This status is one of the most important factors and Al-Azhar depends on it in his conflict with al-Sisi.

Millions of Al-Azhar graduates are highly indebted to Al-Azhar and are ready to support their university. Among them are imams and preachers that are practically local opinion leaders in their areas. They afford great support to al-Tayeb in his reluctance to al-Sisi.

Al-Azhar’s influence is not restricted to Egypt alone, nor is it restricted to Al-Azhar graduates, as it has graduates in all Islamic countries across the world. Sufi organisations also owe loyalty to the Al-Azhar Grand Sheikh as a religious leader.

Al-Azhar’s supporters are not only its graduates, they also include the religious public, who are displeased by al-Sisi’s use of violence after he overthrew the first civilian democratically elected president in 2013. 

Unidirectional secularism

Secularism means in its commonest definition the separation between state and religion, but for the current authority in Egypt, it means the monopoly of religion by the president. 

The dispute widened dramatically between Al-Azhar and al-Sisi after al-Sisi attempted to pass religious rulings rejected by Al-Azhar. The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar expressed his rejection in overturning explicit texts of the Qur’an and the Sunna for self-serving purposes.

That was evident in al-Tayeb’s rejection of an attempt to pass a law that discounts oral divorce, as al-Sisi called for. However, this religious dispute is only the tip of the iceberg of the political conflict between al-Sisi and Al-Tayeb.

The main dispute is over political affairs, most notably the supervision of religious discourse in mosques, issuing fatwas, and the change of teaching and training methods for imams.

The Ministry of Awqaf has adopted an initiative to train imams in the National Academy attached to the Egyptian presidency, instead of training them in Al-Azhar after several high-profile officials criticised the training programmes adopted by Al-Azhar.

The conflict between al-Sisi and Al-Azhar is not an easy one. The indicators say that al-Sisi’s military-backed authority will adopt, in the next stage, a more flexible strategy to subdue Al-Azhar to avoid conflict with an institution that is widely appreciated in Egypt and the Islamic world. On the other hand, al-Sisi has used harsh coercion to solve problems, even when it runs counter to public opinion.

Therefore, we are waiting to see whether al-Azhar shall succeed in maintaining its independence, or if we are to see the collapse of one of the pillars of the Egyptian state and society at the hands of the military-backed authority.