The downfall of Egypt’s elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013 has not resulted in the separation of religion and state in the country. Indeed, something quite different seems to be occurring: religion is being nationalized. Under the leadership of al-Azhar—a complex of Islamic schools, university faculties, and research institutes—the country’s religious establishment appears to be coalescing internally, aligning itself firmly with the post-Morsi road map, and asserting its leadership of religious life throughout Egypt.

That will be good news to many who view Ahmed el-Tayeb, the current grand sheikh of al-Azhar, as an enlightened figure, but it is already causing controversy among Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and others in Egypt. In the past, al-Azhar’s struggles for centrality in Egypt’s religious life and for autonomy from the state have sometimes worked against each other. Over the years, pushing for greater influence has entangled the institution in political clashes that have affected its coherence and independence. Now, el-Tayeb’s dexterity, combined with emergent institutional changes in the religious establishment, offers the possibility that al-Azhar can finally pursue all its goals simultaneously.

Ahmed Morsy
Morsy was a nonresident research associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Given these developments, it seems clear that the result of Egypt’s post-Morsi political reconstruction will be a state that weaves religious structures into its bureaucratic fabric every bit as much as it did in the past. Islam will hardly be excluded from public life. But the vision of Islam is emerging as more coherent and more susceptible to guidance by al-Azhar’s senior leadership.

Al-Azhar After Mubarak

Since the time of Muhammad Ali in the 1800s, Egypt’s leaders have regarded al-Azhar as an influential tool in shaping and promoting the government’s domestic and foreign policies. Accordingly, they have gradually extended their control over the institution.

Then president Gamal Abdel Nasser moved ambitiously to reorganize al-Azhar through Law 103 of 1961, which placed the entire institution and its endowments under the formal jurisdiction of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. The same law also made the appointment of the grand sheikh the prerogative of the Egyptian president, just as the appointment of any other state official. In subsequent years, the regime worked to ensure that al-Azhar would act as a strong counterbalance to the growing religious influence of both internal forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists and external forces like Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabism.

The social and political vacuum in Egypt that followed the fall of then president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 created space for al-Azhar to escape this tight control. Although al-Azhar was in some ways above day-to-day politics, it was still part of the Egyptian state. And it took advantage of the new political context to push for greater autonomy.

Al-Azhar presented a contrast to rising Islamist political groupings, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and Salafist groups like the Nour Party. Unlike the Islamists, al-Azhar was scholarly and not mired in politics. Unlike the Salafists, its approach to religion could be presented as more consistent with the needs of a twenty-first-century society. And unlike both, Ahmed el-Tayeb posed as a promoter of consensus, leading national dialogues and issuing widely supported statements and documents to guide the tumultuous political process.

Nathan J. Brown
Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.

In 2012, al-Azhar’s break from state control was formalized to a degree. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the body that governed Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, made a hasty move days before the first meeting of the parliament that had been elected in late 2011 and early 2012. It unilaterally promulgated amendments to Law 103 that effectively granted al-Azhar quasi-independent status. This status was then reinforced by article 4 of Egypt’s 2012 constitution, which stipulates that al-Azhar is “an encompassing independent Islamic institution with exclusive autonomy over its own affairs.” The amendments to the 1961 law restored the Council of Senior Scholars of al-Azhar and the council’s right to elect the grand sheikh and nominate the mufti. The 2012 constitution mandated that the council be consulted on matters of Islamic law.

These changes offered more than autonomy; they also cemented el-Tayeb’s position within the institution. He was allowed monopoly control over the initial composition of the Council of Senior Scholars. Because the council was given the power to name the mufti, a traditional rival position was effectively brought within al-Azhar’s orbit. Moreover, the amendments confirmed that the law was intended to keep the existing leadership of al-Azhar in place and empower el-Tayeb to act in the best interests of al-Azhar without further discussion among the institution, save among those the grand sheikh himself designated.

Despite the major steps made toward autonomy, there is still some distance to travel. The amendments failed to address the issue of financial independence—al-Azhar remains dependent on the government in this area. Other possible reforms within al-Azhar—such as long-expected attempts to develop its educational curriculum—have also had to wait.

The Rise and Fall of Brotherhood Rule

Morsi’s election as president in June 2012 represented a possible challenge to the new arrangements concerning al-Azhar’s relationship to the Egyptian state. Morsi was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. So his rise meant that a religious movement formerly independent of the state—the Brotherhood—was taking the political reins of power through the Freedom and Justice Party. The Brotherhood also had some support among the faculty and especially the student body of al-Azhar.

The differences between the Brotherhood and al-Azhar were not necessarily doctrinal—the Brotherhood, after all, claimed to be a centrist movement and had long called for al-Azhar’s independence, the resurrection of the Council of Senior Scholars, and a restoration of al-Azhar’s prestige. But many al-Azhar leaders, in particular el-Tayeb, clearly regarded the Brotherhood as more of a political movement than a religious one. They were suspicious that the Brotherhood would gradually place its own figures in key positions in the state religious establishment. And indeed, while charges that Morsi was “Brotherhoodizing” the Egyptian state were often exaggerated, there does seem to have been some attempt by the Ministry of Religious Endowments to fill state ranks with Brotherhood figures.

But as Morsi settled into the presidency, the leadership of al-Azhar avoided a full confrontation. Indeed, it maintained a generally cordial public relationship with the presidency. Some tiffs occurred—such as a perceived snub of el-Tayeb at Morsi’s inauguration—but no clashes followed. On some occasions, when the Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement on women’s rights, for example, or when the upper house of parliament passed a law on Islamic financial instruments, al-Azhar’s leadership used the opportunities to present its independent voice. But it never did so in a tone that suggested a direct challenge.

Yet by the end of June 2013, as public discontent with Morsi’s rule ran high, the grand sheikh apparently felt he could no longer stand above the brewing confrontation in Egyptian politics. On July 3, Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah el-Sisi announced that Morsi had been deposed and the 2012 constitution suspended. El-Tayeb (along with the Coptic pope) was by el-Sisi’s side, clearly endorsing the move. Al-Azhar’s position as a symbol of national unity and consensus was a critical part of the military’s pitching of the ouster as a broad public rejection of Brotherhood rule rather than a military coup.

Al-Azhar strove to make the move appear nonpolitical and a continuation, rather than a repudiation, of its position of standing above the fray. “It was clear that we had to choose between two bitter choices,” said el-Tayeb. He went for the less harmful option of removing Morsi from power and supporting the Egyptian military’s post-Morsi political road map. Yet, despite the enduring respect for al-Azhar among the majority of Egyptians, its credibility and neutrality were tainted, at least in the eyes of Morsi and Brotherhood supporters.

Since Morsi’s ouster, al-Azhar has called for a comprehensive and inclusive national dialogue to plan and complement the political agenda. However, these calls have not produced any concrete results, in part because the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party boycotted the dialogue, blaming al-Azhar for siding with the coup leaders. The other reason for the dialogue’s failure is the lack of interest from the military and the interim government in making any concessions or even discussing elements of the transition plan. In addition, almost immediately after Morsi’s ouster, the interim government and media began championing a “war against terrorism” campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has made it even harder to bring the differing parties together.

In response, an alliance of the Muslim Brotherhood and some Islamists has been calling for a restoration of the 2012 constitution and decrying the July 3 regime change. These forces have been leading weekly rallies and protests to condemn the coup leaders and the interim government.

Last August, large public demonstrations were forcibly dispersed, and they have since subsided. But campus protests have become a daily occurrence since the beginning of the academic year. Interestingly, they have been most marked at al-Azhar University, an institution where the students are far less hostile to Islamists than on other campuses. Since classes began on October 19, student demonstrators have called for el-Tayeb to be dismissed and have denounced the coup against Morsi. University officials have dealt uncertainly with the protesters, whom they decry as an unrepresentative minority of students. But the close proximity of the al-Azhar campus to the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where pro-Morsi protesters camped out before being forcefully dispersed, fuels the students’ motivation to march from the campus and attempt to stage sit-ins. Despite warnings from the university’s president against politics on campus, protests escalated to the extent that the university called in the police on October 30.

Whether it wanted to or not, al-Azhar has thus been caught up in the post-2011 political upheavals. And it has been divided internally as well, as the student demonstrations illustrate most forcefully.

Uniting the Religious Sector After Morsi

Despite the short-term tumult, over the longer term, the institution may reap handsome rewards from the post–July 3 environment.

In the months since Morsi’s overthrow, there have been two notable developments concerning the place of religious institutions in Egyptian public life: more unified leadership in the main state religious institutions and the promise of a greater role for these establishments in public life. These developments have primarily occurred not within al-Azhar but in the structure, personnel, and scope of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Yet they offer a leading role for al-Azhar in shaping religious life in Egypt.

Long regarded as a foe of al-Azhar’s authority, the Ministry of Religious Endowments is now working with al-Azhar to implement regulations to recruit preachers, bring mosques under the ministry’s jurisdiction, and regulate the content of sermons and the issuing of fatwas. Last month, the minister of endowments, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, declared that prayers would be allowed only in mosques controlled by the ministry and that only al-Azhar-qualified imams would be allowed to preach in mosques. The minister also stripped thousands of imams of their preaching licenses, closed mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), which are often led by independent imams, and banned the collection in mosques of donations that “go to those who do not fear God.” What’s more, Gomaa ordered that the boards overseeing state-owned mosques be reformed.

As reasoning for the moves, he cited misuse of mosques during Morsi’s rule, incitement of violence and apostasy, and the recent clashes inside mosques because of the polarized political situation. Moreover, according to a source within the ministry, the minister before Gomaa had appointed Muslim Brotherhood members to high-level positions. Gomaa dismissed these Brotherhood appointees, and afterward some observers called for second- and third-tier ministry personnel to be removed as well on the basis of their membership in the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

These decisions stirred up controversy among preachers and religious groups. The Salafist Nour Party criticized the ministry’s move, calling for preachers to be chosen according to “scientific criteria, not loyalty to the authorities or security considerations.”

While the Ministry of Religious Endowment’s steps may seem to simply be an attempt to dismantle and weaken the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, the situation is in reality more complicated. The regulations in fact suggest a plan to nationalize religious practice in Egypt.

But the plan may not be feasible. This is hardly the first time the Egyptian government has tried to extend its supervision over the country’s mosques; past attempts have foundered because the task is immense. How can the ministry ensure that the mosques are following the preaching guidelines or that Friday prayers are only taking place in mosques bigger than 80 square meters? How can the ministry deal with the “popular” preachers who do not have a degree from al-Azhar? Is the ministry going to seek help from the police to implement policies and arrest the violators? Another concern is the backlash these policies might invite from groups that have long been building, teaching, and preaching in mosques all over Egypt.

In a recent interview, an al-Azhar official acknowledged the challenges of carrying out these policies. The institution fully supports the changes pursued by the new minister as long-needed reforms that have been delayed due to the dismissiveness of the former governments and the religious leadership at al-Azhar and the ministry. But al-Azhar also recognizes the magnitude of the task.

Al-Azhar’s intention is still modest: not to control the religious apparatus, only to regulate and promote its centrist interpretation of Islam. As a first step, the ministry and al-Azhar decided to establish a Supreme Council for Preaching under the leadership of the grand sheikh. The council would be responsible for training imams and preachers and overseeing all matters related to preaching. Gomaa, who was a member of the grand sheikh’s technical office until his appointment, has been leading efforts to send al-Azhar-educated preachers into remote villages and communities, like Upper Egypt and North Sinai, to overcome the influence of other extreme visions of Islam.

Nonetheless, the most visible forum for al-Azhar’s new predominant role is the Committee of 50, which is currently working on a comprehensive revision of Egypt’s constitution. Al-Azhar has three representatives on the committee (the mufti and two others), and those representatives are in a far more powerful position than their predecessors were in the 2012 drafting body.

In 2012, al-Azhar was in more of a defensive and reactive position, seeking to defend the institution’s interests and vision while non-Islamist, Salafist, and Brotherhood committee members battled over various religious clauses. The result was a document that gave the institution more than it might have wished for. One clause gave al-Azhar a consultative role over issues relating to the Islamic sharia principles, while another adopted al-Azhar’s definition of those principles.

Such a powerful role seems a bit more formal than what the body’s current senior leaders desire. They seek supreme moral authority, not definitive and codified political authority. In the 2013 constitution, the clauses in question are likely to be watered down or eliminated, hardly reducing al-Azhar’s influence but making it less a matter of constitutional text.

Al-Azhar and the New Order

However gradual its efforts and however modest its stated vision, al-Azhar is now leading Egypt’s religious establishment into a new era. Traditional rival institutions have been brought into far tighter coordination, and the grand sheikh and the Council of Senior Scholars stand at the head of the more unified apparatus. The mufti and the Ministry of Religious Endowments work more closely with al-Azhar, and all seem to acknowledge the moral authority of al-Azhar’s approach to Islam.

Not all dissident voices have been silenced—the demonstrations by al-Azhar students and the continued presence of Salafists in public debates make that clear. But the position of the grand sheikh and al-Azhar remains secure, with dissident voices losing some of their force and influence without being suppressed.

Perhaps the most telling symbol of the new order is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the most prominent Islamic scholars active today. Although Egyptian and trained by al-Azhar, al-Qaradawi is based in Qatar. He has championed his own centrist approach to Islam but makes no secret of his support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Qaradawi, characteristically unrestrained, was openly critical of Morsi’s overthrow, and he extended his criticism to the position taken by el-Tayeb. But al-Qaradawi also sits on al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars. Though the council reacted with outrage to his comments and even met to discuss how to respond to them, in the end, al-Qaradawi retained his seat. He shows some signs of having tamed his voice but remains isolated within that body.

Not only has al-Azhar gained coherence; it has also been able to enhance its prestige and centrality. El-Tayeb’s appearance at el-Sisi’s July 3 announcement may have appeared to be a political move, but it also cemented al-Azhar’s position as the conscience of the Egyptian nation.

For Egyptians of a wide variety of stripes, al-Azhar represents the true and best face of Islam as it is understood and practiced in Egypt. Those opposed to Islamist rule have rallied around al-Azhar as an alternative and have reacted positively to al-Azhar’s enhanced post–July 3 voice as a repudiation of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood bears considerable resentment toward el-Tayeb, but it still claims to support al-Azhar as an institution.

The current moment is one of tremendous opportunity for al-Azhar. The institution seems to be on the brink of achieving more autonomy and influence than it has ever had in the modern era.