“Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people. There is a need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam—rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years.”
General El-Sisi’s speech, Armed Forces’ Department of Moral Affairs – January 2014
How has al-Azhar, often referred to as the highest reference in Sunni Islam, navigated the recent Egyptian upheavals?
The institution, both a Mosque and a University, could have cloistered itself away from the course of History, waiting for the dust to settle. Instead, it found itself at the very center of events, both as an actor taking sides and position, and as the object of opposing national and constitutional projects for Egypt.
Such a central and active role in a highly volatile environment, where today’s victors are tomorrow’s fools, has not been without contradictions and conflicts within and around the institution. This may ultimately come at a high price for the already weakened authority and legitimacy of al-Azhar in Egypt and beyond.
The following article intends to shed some light on al-Azhar’s role in contemporary Egypt (I), rectifying certain misconceptions about its status in Islam, before analyzing its positioning during the Nile Revolution (II) and since the restoration of the military rule (III).
Al-Azhar’s Contemporary Status – About some misleading concepts
Many experts and commentators describe Al-Azhar using concepts that would better apply to the Vatican. They refer to an ancestral, centralized and hierarchized institution that has the highest authority in Sunni religious law (sharia) and jurisprudence (fatwas).
These concepts are misleading in many respects.
First, there is in Islam no clear institution or figure who can unquestionably define the Truth (unlike the papal infallibility). The absence of a clear hierarchy of norms implies that al-Azhar’s rulings do not prevail over, nor cancel other sheikhs’ fatwas. In case of contradictory rulings, the believer simply gets to chose according to the principle: “Differences of legal opinions are a mercy of Allah”. Finally, the Church and its clergy have a religious status, while the ulemas are in the end but an educated class of Muslim scholars who can never claim to have any privileged relation with God nor any kind of holiness. The Prophet Mohammed himself was but a man.
Second, Al-Azhar cannot be presented as a unanimously respected religious reference for all Sunni Muslims. The institution experienced a slow decline process in the late 19th century until its final “nationalization” by G. A. Nasser in 1961. It has ever since been closely associated, de jure and de facto, to the Egyptian State and policies. The former Grand Imam, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi (1996-2010), was widely criticized for being subservient to Mubarak’s regime. The current Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, a PhD graduate from La Sorbonne (Paris), was himself appointed by Mubarak and participated for a while in the National Democratic Party’s Policies Committee.
Third, the unity of al-Azhar is questionable in view of the diversity of schools of thoughts within the institution and the sometimes contentious relationship between these different tendencies. In fact, the Muslim Brothers and Salafists are quite influential within the rank-and-file of al-Azhar University, particularly in the students committees. The positioning of the current Grand Imam is thus far from being consensual within al-Azhar.
Al-Azhar and the Nile Revolution – Liberal figurehead or power play?
In the first phase of the Nile revolution, al-Azhar adopted a cautious stance in favor of the status quo. Sheikh el Tayeb discouraged student’s mobilization calling for the “need to end the demonstrations and curb the bloodshed” and, in the face of deadly repression, he rejected “civil strife”. However, a few months later, the Grand Imam opportunely took a couple of interesting initiatives that positioned it as an important actor of an Egyptian liberal movement.
Between June 2011 and January 2012, al-Azhar issued two important texts whereby it seemed to embrace all the liberal principles of a modern democracy in terms of rights (freedom of faith and opinion, minorities, women and children’s rights) and institutions (check and balances, civil constitution, democratic elections).
In return for these reassurances of moderation and liberalism, the institution saw in the Revolution the historical opportunity to recover its grandeur and renegotiate its independence from the executive branch. This happened in different stages, with the surprising support of most of the actors of the Egyptian political spectrum, from the Army (SCAF), the Liberals to the Muslim Brothers.
First, Sheikh el Tayeb took the initiative to set up a committee tasked to draft concrete proposals with a view to restoring al-Azhar’s independence. Based on this document, the SCAF hastily adopted far-reaching modifications, including the power for al-Azhar to elect its Imam and the Grand Mufti. The 2012 Constitution, in its article 4, enshrined al-Azhar’s independence, which was confirmed in the 2013 Constitution (art. 7). However, the 2012 provision granting al-Azhar some power to review the conformity of Egyptian legislation to Islamic law was eventually scrapped and the role of the Supreme Constitutional Court reaffirmed.
This restored independence, engraved in the highest law of the Republic and massively approved by the Egyptian people, represents a historical victory for al-Azhar. But institutional independence hardly means political neutrality.
The organic role of al-Azhar in the military restoration
Since the June 30th 2013 protests against Morsi, al-Azhar has proven to be a strategic partner of the military regime in three key aspects: the justification of the restoration, the neutralization of Islamist opposition as well as the building of a positive narrative of religious modernization.
When General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared on television on July 3rd 2013 to tell Egyptians he had deposed Morsi and suspended the Constitution, al-Azhar Grand Imam was among those at his side (see picture below, the Grand Imam is the third from the right).
He justified his endorsement saying that he was “compelled by Sharia to choose between the lesser of two evils”. Since then, the rhetoric has warmed up. al-Azhar’s scholar, Saad Eddin al-Hilali delivered a speech in front of a high-ranking military audience equating General Al Sisi to Moises, a prophet of Allah. Both al-Sisi and his Minister of Interior were, according to the scholar, god sent gifts to defend real Islam.
Since the overthrow of Morsi, Grand Imam el Tayeb has spared no efforts in the fight against “takfirism” while at the same time building a positive image of a progressive Islam.
On the offensive front, al-Azhar is playing an active role in the neutralization of Islamist movements.In summer 2013, in the wake of terrorist operations in the Sinai, al-Azhar announced it would send “caravans” to combat extremism and “counter the waves of radical thought with al-Azhar’s centrist and moderate approach”. Last January, al-Azhar announced it would launch a TV station to “counter al Qaeda in German, English, Arab and French”.
In the meantime,in an attempt to prevent Islamists from using Friday sermons as an opposition platform,the Endowment Ministry imposed unified preach topics (the role of Youth, employment, the environment) and dismissed 55,000 imams on the grounds that they did not graduate from al-Azhar University. This unprecedented move signaled that al-Azhar is the only official source of acceptable Islam.
In parallel, the Grand Imam is proactively promoting a positive image of a moderate and modern Islam through initiatives on good causes such as the recent alliance with Christians in the fight against slavery or the battle against Polio and the promotion of interfaith dialogue (see the Imam-Priest Exchange Initiative).
He is also waging a diplomatic campaign centered on peace and dialogue through regional conferences such as “Promoting peace in the Arab World” (March 2014, Abu Dhabi) and “Dialogue among Civilizations” (next May, Manama).
This lenient narrative is in sharp contrast with what is actually happening on al-Azhar’s campuses. Since the removing of Morsi, the University has become one of the hottest battle fields of Egypt. With the progressive banning of street protests, the tide of student protests against the military rule grew bigger on university campuses where, since a 2009 judiciary ruling, security forces were not allowed.
This restriction was however canceled in February 2014. Since then, with the authorization of the university, security forces regularly storm campuses across Egypt leading to increased violence and repression.
Since September 2013, 12 students were killed during university clashes. al-Azhar, the center of students’ opposition to the military rule, has paid the highest price: 2 students were shot dead end of March, 40 were suspended, 200 expelled while at least 45 were condemned in three different instances to up to 17 years of jail for rioting.
Al-Azhar’s sheikh skillfully navigated Egypt’s latest political upheavals in a way that would remind a Frenchmen of the figure of Talleyrand. By resorting to a smart mix of liberal and religious discourses, he managed to reinstate the historical independence of al-Azhar.
The institution’s recovered independence has been put to the service of legitimizing the new status quo and the repression that underpins it.
Al-Azhar’s external message of peace, dialogue and tolerance is thus bluntly contradicted on the ground. This delegitimizes both the messenger, and, more dangerously, the message itself. Tolerance rarely flourishes on repressive grounds.
In this context, al-Azhar can hardly be the foundation of this Islamic aggiornamento that so many, within and outside Islam, call for.
 Post-revolutionary Al-Azhar, Nathan J. Brown, Carnegie Middle East 2011.
 Al-Azhar is indeed the oldest functioning university in the world, older than Bologna (1088): Jawhar al-Siqili, a slave from Sicily founded it in 970 together with Cairo under the Shia Fatimid caliphate.
 In 1897, the position of Egypt Mufti was created and the minister of religious endowments strengthened, thus weakening the religious centrality of Al-Azhar.
 This decision put an end to Al-Azhar’s autonomy: from that day onwards, its imams would be appointed by the President, its financial resources controlled by the State and its field of competences curtailed to the benefit of other institutions (Ministry of Education and Ministry of Endowments mainly).
 Some experts interpret this move as an attempt by the Army to secure the highest religious positions on the eve of the parliamentary elections that saw a Muslim Brotherhood landside victory.
 The opinion of al-Azhar would not have been binding, but ignoring a negative opinion would have been difficult for the Parliament.
 The 2013 Constitution was approved by 98% of the voters in a referendum held on January 14th and 15th, 2014 with a turnout of 38.6%.
 The video is available in Arabic here (see min 4.04). This unorthodox speech had Grand Imam al Tayeb come forth to curb the enthusiasm of his scholars, calling them not to make “inappropriate comparisons with prophets”.
 Al Monitor, Egypt cracks down on students, January 29, 2014
 The Supreme Council of Universities signed in February a protocol with the Ministry of Interior to secure university campuses, authorizing security forces to be present outside universities and intervene on campuses with the permission of university chairmen.