By Barry Rubin

In a major new development, an Islamic force has arisen to challenge the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and support a more moderate regime in that country. This is a surprising opponent but the only one that could be of significance: al-Azhar University. Why is Egypt’s Islamic establishment taking on Egypt’s Islamists? Simple: survival and self-interest.

The prestigious al-Azhar is a conservative traditionalist institution that has been dominated by Egypt’s regime and used to oppose revolutionary Islamists. The Egyptian government decided who would run al-Azhar, who would be the country’s chief mufti (authority on Islamic law), who would preach in the mosques, who could build a mosque, and what clerics could appear on television and other media. If you wanted to build a career as an important Islamic cleric in Egypt you needed to get the rulers to like you. Their Islamist critics called them “parrots,” not only because they repeated the government line but also because a parrot is used like the English word, “bird-brained.”

Over the years, however, the establishment has made concessions to the new wave of radical interpretations. For the last few months, following Mubarak’s downfall, the al-Azhar leadership appeared ready to cut its own deal with the Brotherhood.

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But the Brotherhood pushed too hard, demanding a totally new leadership for Egypt’s religious institutions. Facing a choice between resistance and total surrender (getting fired and perhaps facing a firing squad), al-Azhar’s heads decided to oppose the fundamental transformation of Egyptian society by the Brotherhood.

Thus, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyib, whose resignation the Brotherhood had demanded, has issued a declaration on Egypt’s future favoring a “modern” and “democratic nation-state” based on a constitution including rights for women, checks and balances among governmental institutions, freedom of speech, and other such things.

Tayyib is allied with Egypt’s other leading official cleric, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa. Both men were closely associated with the Mubarak regime, so a sweeping change in religious institutions would get them fired and possibly even facing legal charges under a Brotherhood-dominated government.

There are lots of subtleties in the statement that hint at opposition to an Islamist state, total Sharia law, and a caliphate. It puts al-Azhar into an alliance with democratic reformers and nationalists against the Brotherhood and its even more extreme allies.

Obviously, one shouldn’t romanticize an Islamic establishment that served the dictatorship and is not exactly liberal. This is merely an alliance of convenience for senior clerics acting out of self-interest. For example, one of the main provisions of al-Azhar’s political declaration is to maintain the university’s independence rather than, as the Brotherhood proposes, subordinate it to a president and parliament in which the Brotherhood will be very powerful.

Another element here is the conflict between the credentialed Muslim clerics and the self-taught preachers who often play a leading role in the revolutionary groups. The al-Azhar statement says that only licensed clerics can produce religious rulings.

The Muslim establishment is preferable to the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafists. Al-Azhar has thrown down the gauntlet. If the Brotherhood and its allies win parliament there will definitely be a thorough purge of the religious hierarchy. If not, the anti-Islamists will have to make concessions to the official clerics to “prove” their pious credentials by making Egypt somewhat more Islamic than it has been for the last 60 years.

To read more about these issues and their historic background, Noha el-Hennawy has written a really excellent survey.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal, and a featured columnist at PajamasMedia His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is His articles published originally in places other than PajamasMedia can be found at

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