The Middle East Channel

The battle for al-Azhar

Since becoming Egypt's first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi has surprisingly done virtually nothing in the area of religion. He has appointed a new minister of education from the Muslim Brotherhood, but thus far has not pushed religious educational institutions toward a more Islamist approach. Over the past week, however, several controversial moves have sparked a public confrontation over Al-Azhar and the future of Egypt's religious establishment. The battle for Al-Azhar could have profound repercussions for Egypt's Islamic politics -- and for the broader world of Sunni Islam.

Al-Azhar University, the oldest Sunni Muslim educational institution in the world, dominates Egypt's mainstream Islamic institutions. The Azhar establishment has been viewed inside and outside of Egypt as tolerant, welcoming of engagement with modernity, and respectful of pluralism, within and without Islam. It's been generally suspicious of the modernist Salafism that informed the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It frowns upon the politicization of religion, and its faculty broadly considers the modernist Salafi methodology favored by the Brotherhood unsound or weak. It is far more stridently opposed, openly so, of purist Salafism of the Saudi variety for creedal, juristic, and spiritual reasons. This is not new. When purist "Wahhabi" Salafism was first established in the 1700s, it was regarded as a heterodox movement by the Sunni religious establishment of that time on account of its extremes. Much of the Azhari establishment still considers it as such. Thousands of students come from around the world to study at the Al-Azhar every year, making it a key counter-weight to the Saudi universities that promote purist Salafism.

This accords with popular religious feelings in Egypt. Most Egyptian non-Islamist political forces recognize the importance of moderate religious institutions such as Al-Azhar in a country where religion is important for 96 percent of the Egyptian population (based on recurring Gallup polls). Al-Azhar enjoys the confidence of nearly all Egyptians (95 percent). The success of Islamist political movements does not mean that Egyptians embrace radical conceptions of Islam. For instance, in the aftermath of the January 25 uprising, some zealous Salafi adherents took advantage of the lack of security, and attempted to demolish the graves of Sufi saints in Egypt, against the decrees of the Azhari establishment. They were met with stiff resistance from the locals: culturally, Sufism is as ingrained into the traditional Muslim culture of Egypt as it is in the Azhar establishment.

But many Egyptians nonetheless have reservations about the Azhar's structural flaws, the drop in educational standards, and the overall lack of faith in public educational institutions due to poor government policies. These have resulted in a substantial number of graduates, and even faculty, who are ignorant of its historical creed, as well as those actively opposed to it. Moreover, the deconstruction of much of its independence from the state, begun under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser but continued under successive administrations, has damaged the credibility of the Azhar domestically as well as internationally. Its firm institutional stance against al Qaeda-style radicalism worldwide, however, has overshadowed much of that criticism. Moreover, non-Islamist political forces consider the Azhar to be a bulwark against the more politicized MB or the puritanical purist Salafis who seek to dominate the post January 25 religious space.

Al-Azhar has taken center stage at several key moments in the revolution. The first was the day after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak when Sheikh al-Azhar announced that Azhar scholars would choose his successor, and any other successor after that, instead of the president of the republic. This followed long-standing criticism that Al-Azhar suffered from reliance on the state, and enjoyed little independence vis-à-vis the regime. The next moment came with the issuance of a constitutional principles document, which was built on the basis of consensus with many different political forces in society, with Al-Azhar acting as the convener. Not long thereafter, nearly every political and civil force in the country declared Al-Azhar, including the MB and most Salafi movements, to be the "Islamic frame of reference." These moves gave many Egyptians hope that Al-Azhar would recover its independence from the state, and speak truth to power when the situation called for it.

The new round of controversy began when a well-known Salafi cleric tweeted that he had been approached by Prime Minister Hisham Qandil to be the new minister of religious endowments, and had accepted the post. Such a new minister could encourage the official propagation of Salafism on the grassroots level through the imams and mosques under the ministry's control, rather than maintain the traditional Azhari approach. There were other unconfirmed reports that the new government was considering appointing a MB leader as mufti in due course -- another key role within the religious establishment of the Egyptian republic. The next logical and final step would be to install a Salafi in the role of Sheikh al-Azhar. Or to put it another way: to "Salafize" Al-Azhar's establishment leadership.

The response of the Al-Azhar was firm: public denouncements were made, with letters being released to the press that indicated the opposition from within Al-Azhar to the proposed appointment. In the end, it was an Azhari who was appointed officially today, as the result of Al-Azhar's pressure. In taking their criticism public, Al-Azhar stayed within the realm of legitimate civil activity for non-state actors in the new Egypt. What complicates matters are the reports that Sheikh Al-Azhar went to the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to express his disapproval at the appointment. A couple of days later, it was clear that the new government had backed down -- but possibly at the expense of Al-Azhar being indebted to the armed forces for intervention in a civil and religious affair.

There are difficult times ahead for Al-Azhar's establishment. There appear to be three options for it, the first being the obvious one of sacrificing its independence from the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements, and allow the "Salafizing" of the establishment to take place. As noted above, this has serious implications. The second would be to align with the non-civil forces in the deep state whose aim is to minimize MB and Salafi influence in Egypt, which would also involve sacrificing its independence in the process. The more difficult route would be to chart another course, where it is engaged in critique of both the deep state and the MB. This would be, of course, the path chosen by individual prominent Azharis, such as Sheikh Emad Effat, who was popularly recognized as the "Sheikh of the Revolution." He was killed in the midst of clashes with military forces on Cairo's streets in December 2011.

Many questions remain. Did the first post-Mubarak, civilian led government consider changing the religious establishment in this manner, especially with this kind of appointment? Does this represent a deepening of influence of purist Salafism within the Muslim Brotherhood? Does the MB intend to use its partisan political power in the future to accomplish "religious engineering" within Egypt? Is that a role that any Egyptian political power should have? But also --will Al-Azhar University withstand the pressures in this new religious space, and if so, how? Is it equipped to maintain its current official creed and simultaneously increase its independence from the state, calling its institutions and leaders to account when the situation calls for it? Clearly, the Egyptian revolution is not over yet, and its outcome will not only affect Egypt.

Dr. H. A. Hellyer is a geo-strategic expert on the MENA region, and was previously at Gallup, the Brookings Institution, and Warwick University. Follow him at and @hahellyer.


The Middle East Channel

Egypt's president will swear in new cabinet Thursday

Egypt's new cabinet will be announced and sworn in today after a partial list of ministers was released on Wednesday. The cabinet will be the first for President Mohamed Morsi, a senior Muslim Brotherhood official, who was elected in June. Morsi tasked his recently appointed Prime Minister, Hisham Qandil, a little-known former irrigation minister, with forming the new cabinet. State media released the names of 20 appointees, which suggests Qandil's government will be mainly technocrats. Muslim Brotherhood members will fill the posts of higher education and the housing ministries. The finance minister and foreign minister from the SCAF transition cabinet will keep their posts, and the current assistant interior minister, Major General Ahmed Jamal al-Din, was asked to be interior minister. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will be allowed to select the defense minister, which is set to be SCAF head, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. The justice minister will be former appeal court judge Ahmed Mekky, who had been vocal against vote rigging during the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak. Another prominent position, the post of minister of religious endowments, will go to the president of al-Azhar University, Osama al-Abd, despite speculation that an ultraconservative Salafist cleric would be appointed. The Salafi al Nour Party claimed it was promised three prominent posts, in addition to the vice presidency. Having only been offered the position of environmental minister, al Nour has decided to boycott the new government.   


Syrian government forces killed an estimated 70 people in door-to-door raids near Damascus. Syrian television reported, "dozens of terrorists surrendered or were killed in operations," while opposition activists claim people were summarily executed. The accusations came a day after opposition fighters appeared to be conducting similar execution style killings in videos. Meanwhile, opposition commanders said they captured a Syrian army tank and attacked the Menagh airbase, believed to be used as a staging area for army reinforcements. The base is located between Aleppo and an opposition held town near the border with Turkey. Though the opposition reportedly retreated, this would be one of the first known instances of the opposition's use of heavy weaponry. Fierce clashes continue in Aleppo, with a government bombardment of Salahedinne. However the army has not made a widespread push for the city, and the opposition maintains concentrated control of various regions. The United States has agreed to a more direct role in the conflict as President Barack Obama signed a secret order authorizing support for the Syrian opposition fighters. The order will allow the CIA and other U.S. agencies to offer assistance that could help the opposition in their efforts to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.


  • Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy warned if he were Iranian he "would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks" after U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta met with Israeli leaders over heightened concerns Israel is planning a strike on Iran.
  • At least 16 people have died in clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians in the Egyptian town of Dahshur after a Muslim mob attempted to set a church on fire.

Arguments & Analysis 

Syrian Paradox: The Regime Gets Stronger, Even as It Loses Its Grip' (Tony Karon, Time Magazine)

"Not only has the Assad regime survived an unprecedented assault, the ICG argues, but it also is no longer the Assad regime of February 2011 - and the rebellion challenging it also may have morphed into something quite different from the uprising that began last year. As a result, stakeholders looking to end the crisis are in urgent need of some thinking that goes beyond speculating whether Assad will go the way of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, or any other autocrat felled during the past year's Arab rebellion. Syria's trajectory will be very different."

A Crass and Consequential Error' (Roger Cohen, New York Review of Books)

"Muhammad Mossadegh, the Iranian prime minister overthrown by US and British agents in 1953, was a man who declined a salary, returned gifts, and collected tax arrears from his beloved mother. Frugality was allied to punctiliousness in this droopy-nosed aristocrat who enraged the West by insisting that Iran, not Britain, should own, sell, and profit from Iranian oil. A member of the princely Qajar family, he retained a noblesse-oblige gentility even as he became the symbol of postwar Iranian assertiveness. He fainted, he swooned-and was often pajama-clad. When he saw a hole, he had an irrepressible inclination to dig deeper. High principle trumped judicious compromise too often for Mossadegh to be a successful politician."

Kill or Capture' (Steve Coll, The New Yorker)

"On September 30, 2011, in a northern province of Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and a senior figure in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, finished his breakfast and walked with several companions to vehicles parked nearby. Before he could drive away, a missile fired from a drone operated by the Central Intelligence Agency struck the group and killed Awlaki, as well as a second American citizen, of Pakistani origin, whom the drone operators did not realize was present."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

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