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Al-Azhar University: a torn actor in the new Egyptian transition


“An independent Islamic institution, with exclusive autonomy over its own affairs, responsible for preaching Islam, theology and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world”. These words are taken from the new Egyptian Constitution, and they describe Al-Azhar as a key actor in the “new” Egypt. Despite this central formal role, however, Al-Azhar appears as a deeply divided institution. While the high spheres of power seem to be well connected with the current order, students at Al-Azhar have strongly opposed the on-going political transition – they protested against the removal of former President Morsi and have strongly criticized the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Clashes and fierce protests are continuing on a daily basis inside the Al-Azhar campus in Cairo, claiming the lives of male and female students. According to an Amnesty International report published in January 2014, “at least five Al-Azhar University students have been killed in clashes with the security forces, and over 200 arrested”. However, the university council and the university’s President Osama al-Abd issued a series of declarations and statements that condemned the protesters’ actions.

This blatant internal rift is mostly the result of the troubled relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. In December 2013, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi left the university council accusing its members of supporting the army and the Egyptian military-installed government. In a Facebook message (published on December 2, 2013 on his official page) he described the other scholars as “followers of the tyrant” incapable of denouncing the repressive agenda of the government, failing to “to declare their rejection of what is happening in Egypt with courage”. While the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi was condemned by Qaradawi as a coup d’etat, the University officially welcomed the regime change. The Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el Tayeb, (alongside other military and civil leaders) was seated just behind Al-Sisi during his message to the nation on July 3, 2013. In a declaration reported by Al-Ahram weekly, El Tayeb also declared: “The Egyptian people have surprised and inspired the world through the elegant expression of their peaceful demands.”

Therefore, despite the vocal and determined opposition of the student base, the official position of Al-Azhar is that of closely following the line of the new regime towards the “nationalization” of religion. This strategy is similar to the one that the Salafi Al-Nour Party has been pursuing for some time. Indeed, a sort of alliance appears to have been forged: during the debate on the new Constitution (approved through referendum last January), Al-Nour and Al-Azhar representatives consulted each other and mounted a common campaign supporting the “yes” vote before the referendum. In a recent interview by Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, one the most prominent leaders of Da’wa Salafiyya (Salafi movement based in Alexandria), Dr. Yasser Burhami, explained that “Al-Azhar has been wronged in the past” but today, especially after the regime change and the January referendum, this religious institution is in “better shape” – i.e., we might presume, once again very close to the regime in power.

However, Al-Azhar and Al-Nour seem to be on the same side only in order to reap specific gains in the current transitional phase: it is most likely a tactical alignment, not a long term alliance. In a very near future the more social-oriented Al-Azhar will probably clash with the more politically-oriented Al-Nour.