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In secret tally, clerics select top Islamic jurist for Egypt

Morsi expected to ratify choice for Grand Mufti

CAIRO — Muslim clerics from Al-Azhar, Egypt’s premier religious institution, chose the country’s top Islamic jurist in a direct and secret ballot on Monday that was the first such vote in six decades.

The 24-member Senior Scholars Authority said it elected Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim, a professor in Islamic jurisprudence, to the post of Grand Mufti. The selection is now expected to be ratified by President Mohammed Morsi, which will make it final.

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Previously, the Grand Mufti was appointed by the president. But after the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s interim military rulers amended Al-Azhar’s bylaws.

The election of Abdel-Karim from among three candidates came against a backdrop of heightened political tensions and protests over Morsi’s rule. Many expected his powerful backers — the Muslim Brotherhood — to field their own candidate for the job.

‘‘There are sleeping cells inside Al-Azhar and they are waking up,’’ said political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan, referring to Brotherhood-aligned clerics associated with the institution. The selection of new members of the Senior Scholars Authority could provide a chance for the group to gain influence there, he added.

In a separate development Monday, Egyptian security forces sprayed protesters with water hoses and tear gas outside the presidential palace as Egyptians marked the second anniversary of the fall of Mubarak with angry demonstrations against his elected successor.

The forces were trying to disperse a small crowd of protesters after some of them attempted to cross a barbed wire barrier meant to block them from the palace gate. Some protesters chanted: ‘‘The people want to bring down the regime.’’ Others threw stones.

Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim, who was selected from among three candidates, is a professor in Islamic jurisprudence.

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Graffiti scribbled on the palace walls read: ‘‘Erhal’’ or ‘‘Leave,’’ the chant that echoed through Cairo’s central Tahrir Square during the 18-day uprising that ended with Mubarak stepping down on Feb. 11, 2011.

Earlier, masked men briefly blocked trains at a central Cairo subway station and a dozen other protesters blocked traffic with burning tires on a main overpass in Cairo. Hundreds rallied outside the office of the country’s chief prosecutor demanding justice and retribution for protesters killed in clashes with security forces after Morsi took office last summer.

Egypt’s newly adopted constitution, drafted by an Islamist-led panel and passed in a public referendum in December, empowered Al-Azhar to review draft laws to see if they violate sharia, or Islamic law. Liberals and some secular Muslims saw the new powers as moving toward the establishment of a religious state.

The Grand Mufti has a variety of tasks in Egypt, including reviewing and ratifying death sentences issued by courts.

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