Mystery Meat at al-Azhar Shakes up Egypt’s Ideological Front Lines


Egypt’s social, political, and economic fabric appears this spring as fragile as it has ever been, between violent clashes near the Muslim Brotherhood’s Muqattam headquarters two weeks ago, repressive legal campaigns against Bassem Youssef and Ali Qandil, and a disturbing trend of radical Islamist vigilantism. Given this mess, it’s easy to overlook the messy aftermath of al-Azhar University’s recent poisoning scare, in which contaminated cafeteria food sickened some 583 students. A growing number of local commentators, however, are correct to point out the importance of al-Azhar’s sacking of university president Usama al-‘Abd and the upcoming election of his replacement. While the nation’s ongoing ideological confusion has manifested within a myriad issues since the 2011 Revolution, this may just be the moment for al-Azhar’s role to return to front and center of that long-term struggle.

By mid-2011, al-Azhar was already a hot topic of national and international discourse in the context of the country’s future direction. Would it remain a seemingly moderate Sunni authority? Would it remove itself from the regime orbit that had slowly chipped away at its reputation over the preceding decades, and if so, would that entail a turn toward a newly-empowered spectrum of Islamists? The institution itself was clearly conscious of these questions: in June of that year, it responded in the short-term by issuing a declaration that clarified its support for a civil (read: non-Islamist) state and asserted its independence from regime appointments. Its long-term status, though, remained in the national consciousness, albeit on the back burner as events on the ground overtook public attention– from parliamentary and presidential elections to riots, crackdowns, and other messes. The “real issues” remained unresolved, in terms of “who controls the institution and what the institution controls,” as Nathan Brown described in his September 2011 report on al-Azhar.

Those two points of control have now returned to haunt the al-Azhar question in recent months. The first catalyst for the renewed possibility of a looming institutional showdown was the passage of a new national constitution in December of last year. That revised constitution retains the Article 2 phrasing of the former document in terms of basing legislation on the “principles of sharia.” But it significantly adds to this with Article 4, which specifies al-Azhar as the primary interpreter of those principles, and Article 219, which lays out their elements within an explicit Sunni framework. The previous wording on sharia was essentially Sadat’s effort to establish his legacy as “the believer president,” but it was largely a toothless insertion. In contrast, this powerful three-clause combination in the new constitution provides a potential mechanism, albeit not yet an explicit one, for the country to gradually move toward theonomocracy by way of the Azhari gatekeepers. While the institution’s current leadership appears to remain committed to a sort of “sharia status quo,” the nation’s various Islamist players undoubtedly recognize the new constitutional potential to change that over the short- or long-term (Salafis generally argue for the former; the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the latter).

This is not to suggest that al-Azhar’s current “old guard” is at all unaware of its crucial position, or of Islamist interest in its co-option. In fact, the current crisis over the leadership al-Azhar’s academic division, precipitated by that mysterious mass food contamination, highlights a growing public posture of sharp defensiveness on the part of the Azharis. Last month, the institution’s leaders used their new constitutional position to lash out at the MB-dominated Shura Council for passing legislation to issue Islamic bonds without consulting its authority. This week, Shaykh Ahmad Karima spoke out on the al-Arabiya network against the MB for (as he claimed) attempting to use the emergency to discredit and nudge out current al-Azhar leadership. (Mohammad ElBaradei’s Dostour Party, meanwhile, chimed in today in support of the institution and reiterating those claims against the MB.) These concerns are not without some basis: the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party official statement on the poisoning scare (in English here), for example, squarely and unequivocally blamed the crisis on Azhari corruption and ineptitude.

Allegations that the MB or other Islamists were behind the food contamination are almost certainly mere gossip, reflective of Egypt’s favorite national pastime of conspiratorial paranoia. But this sequence of events and exchange of accusations are all too real, and likely only a taste of things to come as elections for a new Azhar University president approach in two weeks’ time, and as other challenges to the institution’s leadership arise in the months to come.

This should all serve as an important reminder for Egypt’s non-Islamist opposition players, and others with a stake in the nation’s future direction, of the absolute necessity of long-term strategy. It is, after all, a game that the MB certainly knows how to play (President Morsi’s missteps notwithstanding). Al-Azhar may be using its new constitutional authority to resist Islamist legislation right now, but what will happen if its leadership is gradually overtaken by scholars and jurists with a stronger Islamist bent? The Dostour Party is not without its flaws, but on this issue other opposition parties should join it in vocally supporting the current Azhari leadership– if only for the sake of speaking out in a strategic rather than reactive capacity.

It must not be forgotten that Egypt’s future lies in its institutions, not in its street battles. If non-Islamist parties and organizations clearly support al-Azhar’s better initiatives (e.g., backing its opposition to Islamist policies, and finding ways to reach out to those students and faculty who are inclined to reciprocate such support), they may indeed gain greater trust and loyalty from its leadership in the process. The alternative is leaving the initiative to the nation’s Islamist players, including their supporters among al-Azhar students and others, who are most certainly not planning to passively sit back and leave Egypt’s foremost institution of Sunni thought and practice to its own devices.   

Kurt Werthmuller is currently serving as Adjunct Professor of Islamic History at The Catholic University of America. Follow him on Twitter @kwerthmuller.

Photo: Emil Myrsell

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