Analysis

Sissi Fights to Soften Egyptian Religious Thought

The president suddenly realized that Al-Azhar, the institution that affords him religious legitimacy, was trying to undermine his pro-American policies

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, center, is greeted at the Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, March 6, 2018.
MENA via AP

Egypt’s president is fed up with the most important religious institute in Egypt, if not in the entire Islamic world. After telling Al-Azhar’s sheikh that “you, honorable sheikh, are exhausting me,” he got Education Minister Tarek Shawki to come out with a dramatic announcement last month. Shawki said his ministry would consider merging Al-Azhar’s education system with Egypt’s general education network. This was a trial balloon that popped with a big bang.

No one seriously believes that such a merger is possible, since that would mean a unified system in which students had religious studies as an option, in contrast to being compulsory in Al-Azhar’s schools. This would basically wipe out the Al-Azhar network, which has 2 million students at all levels. The education minister himself rushed to deny the existence of such a plan, even though he was the one who had presented it to parliament’s education committee.

Al-Azhar isn’t only an important religious institution – it controls 9,000 educational facilities from the kindergarten to university level. Its leaders occasionally interfere in political matters. This happened when the institution’s leader refused to rule that the Islamic State was a heretical organization, claiming that “a Muslim, even if his sins are many, cannot be an apostate.”

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He also criticized President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi for instructing his security forces to forcibly disperse demonstrations by the Muslim Brotherhood. Scorekeeping between the two peaked in February 2017 when Sissi demanded legislation forbidding divorce based on a man’s oral statement, insisting that only written and authorized documents could validate divorce. Al-Azhar ruled that oral statements were valid according to religious law and could not be invalidated.

This year Al-Azhar’s head irked Sissi when he refused to meet with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence due to President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Sissi, who wants to initiate a new religious discourse, one modern and moderate that would serve as a buffer against extremist Islam, suddenly realized that the same institution that afforded him religious legitimacy was blocking his path and trying to undermine his pro-American policies.

Al-Azhar, which was founded in the 10th century, went on to attract students and religious scholars from around the world. It was an independent institution until 1961, when a law pushed through by President Gamal Abdel Nasser made it part of the government bureaucracy.

In exchange, Al-Azhar was granted the authority to censor all cultural matters in anything pertaining to religion, as well as the authority to run an independent education system, including the establishment of faculties of engineering, medicine and commerce, in addition to the faculties of religious studies.

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Over the years Al-Azhar has been harshly criticized by religious scholars and radical Islamist movements, which viewed the symbiotic relationship with the regime as an anomaly incompatible with religion. Despite the criticism, both sides have benefited from the relationship.

But when voices opposing the president’s polices started emerging from Al-Azhar, particularly regarding his “new discourse” plans, Sissi got tough and harshly criticized Al-Azhar. No one doubts that the minister’s proposal to merge the two education systems was something that came down from Sissi. The public furor it unleashed is a sign of the anxiety felt by the institution.

“This proposal is unconstitutional,” said Al-Azhar’s director, Abbas Shuman. “Such a decision cannot be made by the education minister because the prime minister is responsible for Al-Azhar,” added an Al-Zahar spokesman.

Beyond these procedural arguments lies the fact that Al-Azhar’s education system is an important revenue generator, and if it merged with the general network its leaders, teachers and religious-law interpreters would lose their livelihoods. 

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To block the move, which never really took off anyway, Al-Azhar spokesmen explained that the institution is an important component of Egypt’s soft power, since students from more than 105 countries attend its schools, with graduates becoming leaders in their respective countries.

Another argument is that behind the drive to merge the systems “are secular voices who oppose Egypt as a country with values – who see Al-Azhar as a bastion they need to topple.” Moreover, opponents say a merger of the systems would mean students wouldn’t opt for religious studies, focusing instead on compulsory subjects ordained by the general system.

This would lead to a loss of the religious heritage that’s part of Egypt’s national identity. The counterargument is that Al-Azhar is attracting weaker students seeking to shirk the demands of the general education system, thus perpetuating the country’s educational and scientific shortcomings.

Sissi won’t soon be changing the education system or method in Egypt, one that lags far behind other countries. But he has raised high the sword of struggle against radical-religious currents. Sissi’s approach on religion is picking up steam, and if necessary the president will impose the “correct” content on Al-Azhar as well. Maybe when he has time he can come to Israel and give us some advice.