Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Conspiracy at Al-Azhar?

Last week’s dismissal of the president of Al-Azhar University over a food-poisoning scandal has triggered a wave of mixed reactions and conspiracy theories, writes Gihan Shahine

Al-Ahram Weekly

The protests that erupted last Friday and earlier this week in solidarity with Al-Azhar and its grand imam, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, against alleged attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to impose its hegemony over the centuries-old university are yet another reflection of the country’s deepening state of polarisation that is now invading the corridors of the Sunni world’s most prestigious seat of learning.
They have also opened a Pandora’s Box of questions on whether the Brotherhood is trying to seize control over the centuries-old institution and its moderate, enlightened discourse.
The protests, which used slogans like “Al-Azhar is a red line” and “anything but Al-Azhar”, erupted after last week’s dismissal of Al-Azhar University President Osama Al-Abd and his top aides over an outbreak of food poisoning on the campus that had led to at least 580 Al-Azhar students being rushed to hospital after on-campus meals.
Officials in charge of the university’s dorms and cafeteria were immediately sacked and referred for investigation.
However, that hardly quelled the anger of Al-Azhar students, who went out on massive protests calling for the dismissal of Al-Abd and his top aides for the alleged negligence by the university administration. Several of the protesting students who blocked roads and engaged in a sit-in in front of the headquarters of the grand imam’s office in Darrassa also called for the removal of Al-Tayeb himself.
The grand imam reacted positively by calling for elections to the post of university president, something which was widely interpreted as meaning the dismissal of Al-Abd. The university council then replaced the director-general of the dormitories, the food and beverage manager, and the director of the girls’ dorms. The council referred all those who may have played a role in the poisoning, as well as Al-Abd, to the east Cairo prosecutor’s office for investigation.
The students immediately celebrated these apparently corrective measures as steps in the right direction. One student told Al-Hayat Al-Youm talk show immediately after the decision to dismiss Al-Abd that the students were satisfied with the sacking, which, he insisted, had been a collective demand of the students regardless of political affiliation.
Spokesman for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) Murad Ali was also quick to thank “the university council for swiftly meeting students’ demands and taking the needed disciplinary measures” on his Facebook account. “It is a sign that the revolution is on the right path,” Ali wrote, since there is now “no room for corruption”.
Prominent columnist Fahmy Howeidy similarly welcomed the move on the grounds that “it is a good thing to hold officials to account for the student poisoning disaster at the University of Al-Azhar,” which, he said, “revealed the corruption and lack of responsibility among employees in government departments.”
Last month, students from the university’s dorms held protests against the quality of the food served to them and the poor state of the buildings and facilities, but nobody seemed to be listening.
Today, the university administration has promised to meet the student demands through measures including hiring a company to ensure that the dorm kitchens are up to health standards and a sanitation company to help fight insects inside dorm rooms. Students have already attested to an improvement in the quality of on-campus food.
Howeidy wrote that “the silver lining in what happened is probably the alarm that was sounded after this incident, placing the crisis of the deteriorating performance of the government sectors on the agenda of concerns that should witness reforms,” in his column in Al-Shorouk daily newspaper.
Yet, in a society plagued by deep political polarisation and an alarming lack of trust, not everyone would explain the issue in the context of innocent disciplinary measures against corruption and negligence.
Many critics have argued that the university president should not have been dismissed before investigations had proved him guilty. Critics thus suspect that Al-Abd, who is known for his integrity, could have been made a scapegoat for a Brotherhood attempt to impose its hegemony over the centuries-old institution.
In this context, critics also allege that the massive student protests were perhaps sparked by the Brotherhood majority that has dominated Al-Azhar university’s student union since the last student elections in March.
The poisoning scandal has triggered a wave of rumours and conspiracy theories claiming that the whole issue, albeit a recurrent incident in all Egyptian university dorms, has perhaps been overblown or politicised.
Critics have charged that the Brotherhood allegedly plotted the incident, or at least blew it out of proportion, in attempts to discredit the grand imam and replace him with an ally of the group, a claim Brotherhood members vehemently deny.
Elections are now underway to choose a new president for the university after Al-Azhar’s Supreme Council approves the election rules. Critics fear that a Brotherhood ally may be elected to the post, and the fact that Al-Azhar scholar Abdel-Rahman Al-Barr, a senior Brotherhood member, may be among the nominees has been a source of worry for many.
Last Friday, protests in solidarity with Al-Azhar brought out hundreds of liberal, leftist and secular figures, as well as Copts, who went on marches from Tahrir Square and the Al-Hussein Mosque in support of Al-Azhar’s grand imam and against the alleged “Brotherhoodisation” of the institution.
Two movements formed of a number of Al-Azhar scholars, a front “in support of Al-Azhar’s independence” and “Al-Azhar scholars for a civil state”, joined the protests, which also had prominent attendance from members of the Sufi movements and Copts. One protester, Al-Azhar professor of Sharia law Elwi Amin, was quoted in the Egyptian press as sounding public fears that Al-Barr could be the ‘”most likely successor to the former Al-Azhar University president.”
Advisor to Al-Tayeb, Sheikh Osama Taher, said that similar incidents had occurred in other Egyptian universities, but they had not created so much fuss, proof, he said, that the incident had been overblown for political reasons.
Taher speculated that the government had exaggerated its reaction to the issue by calling it a “crisis”, and he queried why the president had chosen to visit students in hospital at this time, when he did not do so for those previously poisoned in Cairo and Alexandria University dorms or for those injured in recent train accidents.
Al-Azhar student and liberal member of the Strong Egypt Party Hossam Al-Kholi said that although students were happy at the dismissal of Al-Abd, many were worried that the Brotherhood could “elect a university president who belongs to the group and then perhaps remove the current Imam and replace him with a Brotherhood member or ally.”
Al-Kholi said that all liberal student movements at Al-Azhar would “stand firm in the face of any such attempt”.
The secularist Wafd Party was quick to slam alleged attempts on the part of the Brotherhood or the ultra-conservative Salafis “to impose their hegemony over Al-Azhar, which will be doomed to failure because they will be met with strong opposition from public opinion.”  
“Anyone with brains should refrain from pushing Al-Azhar into any political game,” read a recent Wafd statement.
The Dostour Party similarly issued a statement condemning what it called “a plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to oust Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb and take over the institution.” The Dostour’s statement claimed that no Muslim Brotherhood student was affected by the poisoning and that the majority of Al-Azhar University’s students were Brotherhood members.
Al-Tayeb was previously known for his hardline stance against the Muslim Brotherhood when it was still an outlawed opposition group. In 2006, Al-Tayeb, a former member of the now-dismantled National Democratic Party (NDP), condemned a military-style parade by Brotherhood students on campus in his capacity as the then president of Al-Azhar University, charging that they had worn black facemasks “like Hamas, Hizbullah and the Republican Guard in Iran”.
Some liberal and secularist forces often refer to this incident to support their theories of a Brotherhood plot to oust the grand imam and “Brotherhoodise” the institution.
However, such statements have not passed without criticism. Columnist Amr Ezzat lambasted what he called the “disgraceful” support of liberal forces for Al-Tayeb, arguing that Al-Tayeb had been a former member of the NDP’s policies committee. He also refuted liberal claims that the majority of Al-Azhar students belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, which he insisted were totally unfounded.
In the years following the revolution, it was almost a unanimous demand among many revolutionary forces that the grand imam and those in leading positions at Al-Azhar should resign for having toed the government line at the beginning of the revolution, thus losing public credibility.
Today, however, liberal and secularist forces pledge their support for Al-Tayeb and Al-Azhar as a moderate school of Islamic jurisprudence that can stand up to the Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafis.
At a time when Egypt’s political elite had got bogged down in debates over the Islamic-versus-liberal identity of post-revolutionary Egypt, Al-Azhar stepped into the fray as perhaps the only universally respected institution capable of bringing about national unity, or at least dialogue, among the different views, producing several important documents reinstating freedoms and human rights.
As a result, liberal intellectual and writer Gamal Al-Ghitani has insisted that the Brotherhood “does not want to have any strong institution that stands in its way,” adding that the Brotherhood “will try to institute its members, or at least its sympathisers, in leading positions at Al-Azhar” and oust the grand imam because he is an “enlightened scholar whose moderate views and strong personality have regained much of Al-Azhar’s prestige, lost over past decades by his [Al-Tayeb’s] predecessor.”
FJP spokesmen, however, have refuted rumours that the Brotherhood was involved in the poisoning scandal or was trying to oust Al-Azhar’s grand imam. They further claim that such rumours have been fabricated by Brotherhood opponents to drive a wedge between the regime and the grand imam.
Under the new constitution, they argue, the grand imam cannot be removed from office. “No members of the [Muslim Brotherhood] or the FJP have blamed the incident on Al-Tayeb,” the FJP’s Ali insisted. Ali also rebutted claims that the Brotherhood was seeking to appoint its allies into senior positions or impose its influence on the prestigious institution.
Ashraf Badreddin, a member of the supreme committee of the Freedom and Justice Party, similarly argued that had the Brotherhood had any intention of seizing control over Al-Azhar, the president would not have condoned the election of the Al-Azhar grand imam and the mufti by senior clergy, instead of their being appointed by virtue of a presidential decree.
This meant, Badreddin argued, that the president would now have no authority over the choice of the grand imam, or, according to the new constitution, over removing him from office.
Badreddin said that the president respected Al-Azhar as “the main and only guardian of moderate Islam,” adding that the Brotherhood wanted the institution to remain “the Sunni world’s most prestigious seat of learning.”
Sheikh Gamal Qutb, former head of the Al-Azhar fatwa council, told Al-Ahram Weekly that claims of the “Brotherhoodisation” of Al-Azhar were unfounded and that the protests in support of the grand imam were too politically complicated to comment on.
It is not that Qutb thinks that the Brothers do not want to impose the group’s hegemony over the institution. But he rules out the threat of Brotherhoodisation on the grounds that “those who belong to the group are already known by name. Their number is almost insignificant, and there would be strong opposition from inside and outside the institution before they were allowed to rule the place.”
Qutb said that although “the Brothers do not have a unique school of thought that would conflict with Al-Azhar’s moderate discourse, nobody would allow a Brotherhood member to be in a leading position in Al-Azhar for the reason that those who provide fatwas should not have any political or religious affiliation if they are to retain public credibility.”
Arguments and counter-arguments aside, the new grand mufti, Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, warned in a statement last week that “dragging Al-Azhar into any political quagmire would immediately undermine Egypt’s security.”

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