Egypt’s future might hinge on Cairo mosque

An anti-Morsi protester held up a sign that read, “The president is illegitimate, Morsi is a killer,” in front of police standing guard outside the Parliament building on Saturday.
An anti-Morsi protester held up a sign that read, “The president is illegitimate, Morsi is a killer,” in front of police standing guard outside the Parliament building on Saturday.

CAIRO — The revolution that began here two years ago with calls for justice and freedom has become a rout by Islamist forces that have racked up victory upon victory at the polls.

But within Egypt and across the region, the real source of fears that the country is hurtling toward theocracy lies in an unlikely place: the ancient stone corridors of al-Azhar, a Cairo mosque and university complex that long has been known as a respected beacon of moderation.

That reputation is under threat, as more hard-line elements of Egypt’s Islamic mosaic stage a rearguard action for control. It is a battle that has gained newfound urgency after approval of a draft constitution giving al-Azhar extraordinary power to pass judgment on the religious merits of the nation’s laws.


Azhar leaders say they did not want the role but were pressured to accept it by adherents to a puritanical, Saudi-influenced school of Islam known as Salafism, with clout that has surged in Egypt’s newly democratic era.

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‘‘The Salafis want to make Azhar a part of the political system, which we are against,’’ said Abdel Dayem-Nossair, an adviser to Azhar’s grand sheik and a member of the assembly that wrote the new constitution. ‘‘We don’t like to put the law in terms of a religious dogma that says ‘This is right’ or ‘This is wrong.’ ”

But under the new constitution, that is exactly what the millennium-old institution will soon be doing. Dayem-Nossair said he believes the Salafis insisted on the provision because ‘‘they think they’ll take over al-Azhar.’’

The fight about Azhar’s nature and role is one with profound implications for Egypt, and beyond. As much as anything, the Arab uprisings and the tumult that followed have turned on the question of where Islam fits in society and who gets to interpret Islam.

Azhar has played a venerated role in that debate for centuries. It is widely considered the most distinguished center of Sunni Islamic thought, and it annually educates millions of students, many of whom travel here from across the globe.


At a time when more austere and intolerant forms of Islam are ascendant, Azhar has offered an antidote, preaching pluralism, respect for non-Islamic cultures, and rights for women and minorities.

Many secular and Christian Egyptians fear that a turn toward hard-line ideology by Azhar might lead to a more rigid interpretation of Islamic law, known as Shariah, which under both the old and new constitutions forms the basis of Egyptian legislation. That in turn could mean fewer freedoms for Egyptian artists and academics, restricted rights for women in their homes, and at work, and increased blasphemy prosecutions for perceived insults against Islam.

The struggle for the direction of Azhar is being nervously watched by moderate Arab leaders across the Middle East. Even government officials who have been sympathetic with the goals of last year’s Arab Spring protests said they worried about the potential power of a more doctrinaire Azhar to stir up opposition to secular governments and institutions.

‘‘The Muslim Brotherhood has been wanting for years to get a hold of it, and once they do, moderate Islam is dead,’’ said a senior Middle Eastern government official whose country includes millions of Sunni Muslims.

The official insisted that his identity and national origin not be identified, fearing that doing so would incite attacks by hard-line clerics. ‘‘This is a major challenge to the region.’’


Despite its long history and reputation, Azhar was badly tainted by its close association with a string of Egyptian autocrats, most recently during the three-decade rule of President Hosni Mubarak. When Mubarak was overthrown early last year, Azhar emerged weakened and seemingly ripe for a takeover.

‘We don’t liketo put the lawin terms of a religious dogma that says ‘This is right’ or ‘This is wrong.’ ’

That has not happened. Grand Sheik Ahmed el-Tayib, a Mubarak appointee, has managed to keep his job and has become a leading advocate for using dialogue to bridge Egypt’s widening chasm between President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist backers on one side and the loose coalition of liberals, leftists, and Christians who oppose him on the other.

Critics say, however, that Tayib’s survival as grand sheik owes to his willingness to bow to the new Islamist order.

A string of firebrand preachers, including Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and the hugely popular television personality Yusuf al-Qaradawi, have used the Azhar pulpit to inveigh against Israel.

This month, the Muslim Brotherhood made Azhar the scene of boisterous funerals for members killed in clashes with secular demonstrators.

Several Middle Eastern governments expressed particular concern over Qaradawi’s sermon, in which he denounced secular Muslim governments and said a united Islamic nation would destroy Israel.

‘‘We tell Israel: Your days are numbered,’’ said Qaradawi, who is a member of the senior Azhar council that will interpret the Islamic character of Egypt’s laws. ‘‘God might leave the oppressor unpunished for a while, but when the time of judgment comes, there will be no escape.’’

A second Middle Eastern government official said he feared that the views of Qaradawi would eventually hold sway in Azhar, regardless of who holds the grand sheik’s position.

‘‘Sunni Muslims will be under the influence of these voices, not just in the Middle East but in Muslim communities in Europe and around the world,’’ the official said.