Egyptian authorities eliminate Al-Azhar’s independence

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Days after issuing a presidential decree declaring Dar Al-Ifta a “special body,” which made it exempt from legal texts that determined the mechanism used to select its senior officials and their retirement age, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued a decision extending the service of the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr. Shawky Allam, for a year after he reached the age of 60.

With his recent decision, Sisi took away the authority to choose the position of mufti from the Council of Senior Scholars, which is affiliated with the sheikhdom of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, as part of his continuous efforts to eliminate the independence of Al-Azhar and limit the authority of its sheikh, Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb.

Taking power from Al-Azhar under duress

Before the January 25, 2011, revolution, which overthrew the regime of President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, the choice of the Egyptian Grand Mufti was made by the president, but after the revolution, Al-Azhar enjoyed greater independence and obtained the right to nominate the mufti.

According to the law, the Council of Senior Scholars, which is affiliated with Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, undertakes this task. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar calls on the council to convene at least one month before the expiry of the mufti’s term to consider the nomination of the new mufti, provided that the authority nominates three scholars who meet the conditions and criteria. The authority fills the position, then the commission votes by direct secret ballot on the three candidates, and the one with the highest votes is the candidate for the fatwa post.

The Sheikh of Al-Azhar presents the nomination to the president to implement his competence in issuing a decision appointing the mufti. The term of office of fatwa is four years, subject to renewal based on the proposal of the Grand Imam, Sheikh of Al-Azhar, after consulting the Council of Senior Scholars.

Based on these legal texts, the Council of Senior Scholars chose Dr. Shawky Allam as Mufti of the Republic in February 2013, and former President Mohamed Morsi ratified this choice, and he was re-elected again in 2017.

Late last year, 2020, and with the end of Dr. Allam’s second term when he reached the legal retirement age, the crisis of choosing a mufti began to appear in the open, as the House of Representatives, at the instigation of the president, discussed a draft law aimed at restructuring Dar Al-Ifta and transferring its subordination to the government instead of Al-Azhar and the Council of Senior Scholars.

Al-Azhar protested strongly against this law, stressing that it was unconstitutional and that it threatens the independence of Al-Azhar. The Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, asked to give a speech in parliament on the matter. Al-Azhar’s sheikhs revolted and the State Council expressed its reservations about the draft law, stressing that it “creates a parallel entity to Al-Azhar that disputes it in its terms of reference set by the constitution.” The Sisi regime was forced, after the strong reaction, to withdraw the law.

Last February, the crisis resurfaced again, as Shawky Allam’s second term ended, and newspapers affiliated with the regime published that the Council of Senior Scholars met and chose a new mufti and sent its choice to President Sisi for ratification, provided that Allam continues in his position until he reaches the age of retirement in August.

According to the leaks, it seems that the president did not like the new mufti chosen by the Council of Senior Scholars, because of his independence, so he preferred to circumvent the current law, and issued presidential decisions making Dar Al-Ifta a “special nature,” which excludes it from the mechanism used in selecting senior officials and their retirement age.

Sisi’s decision stipulated that the functions of leadership and supervisory management at Dar Al-Ifta are not subject to the provisions of Articles 17 and 20 of the Civil Service Law.

Article 17 stipulates that “Appointment in leadership and supervisory positions shall be through a competition announced on the Egyptian government portal website or publication in two widely distributed newspapers, including data related to the position. The appointment shall be through a selection committee for a maximum period of three years, which may be renewed for a maximum of three years, based on performance evaluation reports, without prejudice to the remaining conditions necessary to fill these positions.

As for Article 20 of the Civil Service Law, it stipulates that “the term of occupying leadership and supervisory management positions ends with the expiry of the period specified in the decision to occupy them unless a decision is issued to renew them, and at the end of this period the employee occupies another job whose level is not less than the level of the position he was occupying if he was a state employee prior to occupying one of these positions.

Two days after this decision was issued, Sisi issued a new decision extending the appointment of Shawky Allam as Mufti of the Republic for a year, bypassing the authority of Al-Azhar and the Council of Senior Scholars, and returning things to their previous state before the January 25, 2011, revolution, continuing his favourite hobby in eliminating all the revolution’s achievements, and the encroachment on the authority and independence of Al-Azhar.

Why Shawky Allam in particular?

Immediately after Sisi’s decision to extend Allam’s service, the latter issued a statement expressing his thanks and appreciation to Sisi for his “precious trust,” adding, “This great support from His Excellency represents a great incentive and a great opportunity to serve the country, and work to complete our path in renewing the fatwa discourse and achieving fatwa leadership not only in Egypt but in the whole world.”

Allam stressed that “President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s wise decisions indicate the extent of his care for Egyptian religious institutions, and his constant endeavor to advance and support the path of success, in order to control the compass of fatwas, and to combat extremist ideology and terrorist groups.” He continued, “Mr. President, we are on the covenant, we are continuing to complete the success we started, and we are fully prepared to start new successes that highlight Egypt’s religious and legal status in the worlds, and we pledge to God that we will remain on this covenant as long as we have a pulse of life.”

With these vulgar and submissive words, the Grand Mufti of the Republic, the second most important religious official in Egypt, expressed his thanks and gratitude to Sisi for extending his service. He does not hesitate in any situation to subjugate religion to serve the Sisi regime. This is the mufti who supported hundreds of death sentences issued in political and unfair trials that lack basic rules of justice, and this man is the one who classified the Brotherhood as terrorists and who has long supported Sisi’s vision of “renewing religion.”