Blessing the state: How Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church betrayed the Egyptian revolution, Part II: Al-Azhar

Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar, Shawki Allam

Part II: Al-Azhar

When Egyptians are sentenced to death their papers are forwarded to the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar Shawki Allam, who decides which rulings accord with Islamic law before issuing the final verdict. One of the hundreds of names to undergo Allam’s judgement under the current military-backed regime is Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, whose fate Allam sealed in June last year. The Mufti’s verdict may not be legally binding but his position as the highest religious authority in Egypt gives the regime moral legitimacy for its actions. Hence, the Grand Mufti is an extension of Egypt’s corrupt judicial system: both are part of an arbitrary decision making process and neither is concerned about due process.

Al-Azhar was established over 1,000 years ago by the Fatimad dynasty and comprises a mosque, a university and research institutes. Once upon a time it was one of the most respected Sunni religious institutions in the world. However, recently its Grand Sheikh and Mufti have done some serious damage to that reputation by colluding with whichever strongman is in power, regardless of their human rights abuses. This has long been the case but thanks to increased press coverage during the 2011 protests and the years that followed, their political leanings have been exposed for all to see.

It is the credibility the institution held all those years ago that protestors in 2011 attempted to reclaim. Imams, scholars and students joined the mass demonstrations to call for independence of the institution from the state and on 13 March over 1,000 imams marched from Abassiya to the office of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to reiterate these demands. Al-Azhar has long been subject to interference and control by the government but this was made official in 1961 when then-President Gamal Abdul Nasser passed Law 103 placing Al-Azhar’s budget under state control, ensured the institution was overseen by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, and stipulated that the Grand Sheikh was to be appointed by the president. Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak remained in command of Al-Azhar throughout their presidencies.

When the 2011 protests in Tahrir grew, it came as no surprise that the Grand Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb called on protestors to stand down and avoid fitna (chaos) because Shari’a forbids it. Al-Tayeb was, after all, appointed by Mubarak who the protestors were seeking to overthrow. His words were echoed by Sheikh Saeed Amer, head of Al-Azhar’s Fatwa Committee, who declared that Islam rejects peaceful protests and deemed that expressing opinions in this manner was unacceptable. It is the duty of the police to protect the country, he added, which many took as an endorsement of the violent response police had taken towards protestors.

When Mubarak stood down in early February, officials at Al-Azhar were forced into offering the protestors concessions and on 20 June they produced the Al-Azhar document. It offered their support for a democratic state with equal rights, the separation of powers, the reforming of education and the targeting of corruption. The document also advocated that Al-Azhar be independent from state control. It was criticised by some and applauded by others. The Copts offered their support and declared it exemplary of Al-Azhar’s vision of equality for all Egyptians.

This was followed by SCAF's 2012 decree which amended Nasser’s 1961 law, further confirmation Al-Azhar was set to be independent, a promise that was even written into the 2012 constitution. The decree stipulated that the Grand Sheikh could be elected, the Mufti nominated and that the Council of Senior Scholars had authority to do both of these. But the small print read that Al-Tayeb could choose the scholars and that the president could ratify the council’s choice. Al-Tayeb remains Grand Sheikh to this day.

Then came the events of 2013. Morsi had been elected and had just served for a year when some protestors returned to the streets to demand he stand down. Al-Tayeb backtracked on the condemnation of protests he had issued in January 2011 and praised the anti-Morsi demonstrators: “The Egyptian people have surprised and inspired the world through the elegant expression of their peaceful demands.” Later he released the following religious decree: “Peaceful opposition against a ruler is permissible according to Shari’a Law.”

Then, Al-Tayeb joined Pope Tawadros II at a meeting with Sisi in which it was decided Morsi’s time was up. “It was clear that we had to choose between two bitter choices,” said Al-Tayeb at the press conference in which Sisi announced Morsi’s ouster.

Amongst students at Al-Azhar, Al-Tayeb became known affectionately as the “Grand Imam of the Coup” and “Sheikh Al-Askar”, which means “Sheikh of the Military”. Many Al-Azhar students supported Morsi’s rule and anger at his ouster drew demonstrators to the university grounds. Students were expelled, professors suspended and arrested. Then in October administrators authorised security forces to enter the campus and disperse protestors, despite a ban that had been passed in 2010. The administrative department of Al-Azhar is now encircled by a wall and entry and exit to the building is via a black, steel gate.

Support within the upper echelons of Al-Azhar for Sisi’s military-backed regime and the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi strongly suggests that any independence they won in the post-2011 months has been lost again. Along with Pope Tawadros II, Al-Tayeb’s public support for the regime lends moral legitimacy to the government, but what really unites these leaders is their proximity to privileged power and their desire to hold on to that power at any cost, even if that means sacrificing the very people they are supposed to be offering religious and spiritual guidance to.

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor