The resharing of an old video of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb, in which he speaks about a campaign against the most prominent religious establishment in the whole world, has caused widespread controversy in Egypt.
Egyptian newspapers and satellite channels loyal to General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s regime rebroadcast the video, in which al-Tayeb was speaking on state television in Egypt.
The editor-in-chief of Al-Azhar newspaper Ahmed al-Sawy said in press statements that the interview is three years old.
Al-Sawy considered the video a “re-publication in an attempt to fabricate tension,” with Al-Azhar.
A senior Egyptian expert attributed the escalation against Al-Azhar as an attempt to create a new crisis between the regime and the Sheikh of Al-Azhar for reasons related to the fact that “not many people have liked the role played by al-Tayeb.”
The presidency and parliament in Egypt have often praised the role of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar and his institution, despite media talk of clashes between the two sides.
According to the old video, Al-Tayeb complained, saying: “If we want to respond to an article that insults Al-Azhar, our article is not allowed to be published, except after [going to] great trouble, and if we want to get one second on the channel to talk, it is very difficult and [the request is] often refused.”
He added: “It is as if there is a campaign against Al-Azhar.”
Channels that replayed the video did not indicate that al-Tayeb’s speech was made three years ago.
After the video was widely circulated, the regime’s close associate, Mohammed al-Baz, strongly criticised Al-Azhar’s Sheikh, describing his words as “untrue.”
On his daily TV show al-Baz said: “The Grand Imam’s speech on television disturbed me,” wondering, “why the Sheikh of Al-Azhar feels that he is oppressed [and why is he] talking bitterly?”
He added: “I cannot say that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar is a liar, but I doubt the sincerity of what he said, and I think this did not happen. It seems that the channels the Sheikh of Al-Azhar obtains his information from are inaccurate and dishonest in communicating the truth.”
Al-Baz refused to “export the image that there is persecution and war against Al-Azhar in the media,” stressing that “it is not true and [the Sheikh of Al-Azhar] must pay attention to those around him.”
Al-Baz addressed the Sheikh of Al-Azhar: “It is not appropriate for the Sheikh of Al-Azhar to say inaccurate things, please correct this picture while retaining your role, position, and place.”
Outside Egypt, dissident media used this video to show what they see as “persecution and a new clash between Al-Azhar and the al-Sisi regime.”
On his TV show in Turkey the dissident media figure Hamza Zobaa considered al-Tayeb’s words as a “clear message saying that they are fighting me,” and a “condemnation of the regime.”
The dissident journalist Moataz Matar said in his TV show broadcast on on Turkish TV that al-Tayeb’s speech is a “cry of media control and reveals the suffering of Al-Azhar.”
He added that al-Tayeb’s words reveal that the regime does not like Al-Azhar, although these accusations have many times been denied by the authorities who confirmed their support for media freedom and Al-Azhar and its Sheikh.
Al-Tayeb’s video did not appear on Al-Azhar’s YouTube account in the past few days. The last video of al-Tayeb on that account, “Hadith of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar,” was published five months ago.
Al-Sawy pointed out in a statement that “The propaganda statements about the Imam are excerpted from one of the episodes of his weekly programme aired on Egyptian television, which was recorded and broadcast three years ago, specifically February 2016.”
Al-Sawy said that “The Sheikh of Al-Azhar in that episode was reflecting on the situation he saw at that time, and it is not necessarily that the situation and Imam’s vision are still the same.”
He added that “this is not the first time that statements made by the Grand Imam years ago have been rebroadcast as if it they are new, to serve some of the ideas and parties and current positions, or trying to fabricate tension which has no basis.”
Al-Azhar’s newspaper called on the media to “scrutinise what you publish about the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, and make sure it is up to date through communication with Al-Azhar’s Media Centre or by simply searching on electronic search engines.”
Despite the fact that al-Tayeb participated on July 3, 2013, accompanied by 14 others, when then Minister of Defence, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, read out a statement overthrowing the first democratically elected civilian president in the country, Mohamed Morsi from office, he did not agree to forcibly breaking up the Rabaa Al-Adawiya square sit-in.
On that day al-Tayeb deplored the sit-in, calling on all parties to show restraint and the sanctity of blood.
In January 2017, al-Sisi asked the Sheikh of Al-Azhar in a televised live interview about the possibility of passing a law canceling oral divorces, after the increase in divorce rates, before adding his famous sentence: “I got tired of you, Imam.”
Following al-Sisi’s proposal, the Board of Senior Scholars in Al-Azhar issued a statement at the time on the validity of oral divorce, which appeared as running contrary to the Egyptian President’s opinion.
Governmental newspapers launched an attack on al-Tayeb, publishing his picture in the state-owned Rose Al-Yousif magazine in late November 2018 under the headline, “the Faqih who tortured us. These are your real battles, virtue of the Imam.”
The constitution says that Al-Azhar is an independent body.
The Al-Azhar Sheikh remains in office at the age of 80 and has a seat in the Council of Senior Scholars. The President of the country is not entitled to dismiss or change his position.
The most prominent of these anti-Al-Azhar steps was in April 2017, after the pro-regime parliamentarian Mohammed Abu Hamed submitted a bill to the House of Representatives with the support of dozens of people, calling for substantial amendments to the Al-Azhar law.
These amendments included the president’s ability to isolate and change the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, but these amendments did not pass.
For his part, the prominent Egyptian academic specialising in political systems, Amr Hashem Rabie, said, “It is known that there are many who do not like the current Sheikh of Al-Azhar.”
He considered that there are decisions made by the Sheikh of Al-Azhar including on oral divorce.
He added: “There are parties trying to show the Sheikh of Al-Azhar in one way or another as responsible for the issue of extremism and the non-renewal of religious discourse, and say he failed in that.”
He saw that this comes because the Sheikh of Al-Azhar’s position is independent and those criticisms are likely to be to “force him to resign.”