Al-Azhar takes centre stage in political struggle for Egypt

December 20, 2013

(A preacher and his followers at Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, 12 December 2011/Tom Heneghan)

A venerable centre of Islamic learning in Cairo has become a new battlefield in the Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle to keep its battered cause alive against Egypt’s army-backed rulers.

When General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared on television in July to tell Egyptians he had deposed their first freely elected leader, the grand imam of al-Azhar was among those at his side.

Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, who looked on as the army chief of staff promised new elections, was falling in with al-Azhar’s decades-long practice of lending its prestige to those in power. But Tayeb now faces a maelstrom of unrest at al-Azhar’s main campus in Cairo, where students are demanding the reinstatement of President Mohamed Mursi, a Brotherhood leader.

“We find it dishonourable to have a grand imam who supports a bloody military coup,” said Youssef Salahein, 21, an undergraduate in Islamic studies and English. “We are not going to stop until he is out of al-Azhar and he is judged for his crimes alongside all the military leaders.”

The anger on the once-tranquil campus contrasts with the pro-Sisi mood elsewhere in Egypt, where the Brotherhood has failed to mobilise widespread support via street protests.

Instead its cadres, vilified as terrorists by the media and the state, are once again in jail or underground, after leading the movement to one electoral triumph after another following the popular unrest that felled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Now the bloodied Brotherhood appears to see al-Azhar as a potential weak point for the government, which like most of its predecessors is determined to ensure that Islamists do not use religious institutions to rally support against their rule.

Read the full story by Maggie Fick here.

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