Turmoil at Al-Azhar: Religion, Politics, and the Egyptian State

Students sit outside a campus building at Al-Azhar University in Cairo in March, 2014.

Students demonstrate against military rule on the campus of Al-Azhar University in Cairo in March, 2014.
(Photo by Jared Malsin)

By Jared Malsin

Dr. Ahmed Hosni sat in his office at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University behind an enormous wooden desk piled with documents, as he explained why the world’s oldest institution of Islamic learning recently built a wall around the administration building in which we now sat.

“We were going to be killed that day, except by the blessing of God, he saved us,” He said, recounting a day last October when, he said, student protesters attempted to storm the building.

Hosni, an administrator, wearing a dark suit, thick wire-frame glasses, and bureaucrat’s manner, was eager to justify the administration’s decision to ask government security forces to enter the campus to disperse the protesters. That October day was the first time police had entered the campus since they were banned by a court order in 2010. In November, a student was shot dead after security forces entered the campus during yet another demonstration. “There were professors calling for jihad and for entering the building. The only office that was saved from destruction was this one,” he said, chuckling.

As he spoke, on a warm day in mid-March, the sound of shouting filtered in through a window. Another protest was underway. Hosni motioned for me to go look for myself. “See? Are there any police?”

Al-Azhar is in many ways an institution in crisis. Founded in the 10th Century, it has, since the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, been effectively brought under state control. The current Sheikh Al-Azhar, Ahmad el-Tayeb, was appointed by ousted authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak, and before his appointment served on the Policies Committee of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The university is a bastion of traditionalist Islam, an opponent of Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, and its top leaders are all chosen in large part due to their friendly relations with the state.

But Al-Azhar is also a vast institution containing multitudes. The Azhar educational system, including several satellite colleges, elementary and high schools, includes a staggering 500,000 students, including 120,000 at the university’s flagship campus in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood. As a center of religious learning,  a great many of Azhar’s students are religious, and percentage of those adhere to some variant of political Islam.

Therefore, in July 2013, when the Egyptian military, following days of enormous protests, removed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi from power, it was a jolt to the Azhar system. Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb firmly supported the military, appearing alongside military chief Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in the dramatic July 3 news conference that heralded the end of Morsi’s rule.

But a large number of Azhar students backed Morsi and opposed the military coup. Many of them joined the two large protest camps the anti-military forces up last summer in opposition to Morsi’s removal. Since the new military-backed government has pursued a sweeping crackdown that has all but eliminated street demonstrations, university campuses have been one of the few remaining zones of protest, and among them, Al-Azhar has burned the hottest. The numbers are a matter of dispute, but at least four students are known to have been killed in clashes with security forces at the university dorms since November, and hundreds (possibly thousands, although no reliable numbers are available) have been detained. Dozens of students have been expelled over protest activities, and dozens of instructors have been suspended for allegedly inciting students to violence.

The demonstrations continue nearly every day both at the campus and the university dorms. Some students are afraid to attend classes for fear they’ll be targeted for arrest. Others are afraid to leave their dorm rooms during protests for fear of being hurt. “Now demonstrations are banned completely,” said E. an engineering student who asked not to have his name published for fear of retaliation from the security forces. E. is an unaffiliated student who said he used to join demonstrations but stopped after students were killed while protesting. “If you protest, they’ll attack,” he says. “I’m not so much scared as depressed. What’s the point anymore?”


When my interview with Hosni ended, I left the building, passing through the black, steel gate the administration had installed to protect itself from its own students. Behind the building, a few dozen male students had gathered. They stood in a row, holding signs, chanting in the bright afternoon sun. The chant followed a call and response pattern, with a chant leader calling out a political stance, and the crowd responding “Azhari!” the Arabic term for an Azhar student or alumnus.

“Against the Interior Ministry!”

“And the thugs!”

Other chants had a bitter bite to them. Here’s how one goes in Arabic:

Yani eh, ‘zabit Dakhaliya?’”
“Yani fashil Sanawiya!”

Which, in English, translates to:

“What does ‘Interior Ministry Officer’ mean?”
“It means someone who failed the college entrance exam!

After a few minutes, the students gathered into a mass and set off marching, still chanting against the military and police. This was a demonstration organized by Students Against the Coup, a movement that formed in the protest camps after Morsi was removed. It is a branch of the larger “Anti-Coup” movement which coalesced last summer and persisted in the weeks and months after the military-backed government sent security forces into the protest camps, killing hundreds in Egypt’s deadliest week of political violence in recent history. The anti-coup movement still holds demonstrations, most of them small, a few of them sizable, mainly in forgotten Cairo neighborhoods and smaller cities across Egypt. The Anti-Coup movement is a coalition of parties and groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood, leading many Egyptians to dismiss it as a property of the widely discredited Brotherhood, but in fact, the protests are politically mixed. Often, more people who say there are non-Brotherhood members are to be found in such demonstrations than actual Brothers.

The Anti-Coup uses a hand-signal during demonstrations, a four-fingered solute, the “Rabaa hand,” a reference to Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square, the site of the vast protest camp that was obliterated by the security forces on August 14. After the massacre, securing accountability for the mass killings quickly replaced the cause of returning Morsi to power as the chief cause of the movement (though many members of the movement maintain that Morsi is still the legitimate president).

I was startled to see the students flashing the Rabaa hand. In fact, I was startled to see people protesting at all. Since the Rabaa killings, the state has cracked down so severely that the protests that were once a part of daily life in revolutionary Cairo have now become a rare sight in the capital’s central districts. Since the crackdown, the revolution itself—by which I mean a kind of daily and weekly practice of confronting the state through the bold, physical method of protest—has been driven underground. Such protests are now confined to isolated sites: university campuses, factory floors, and some of Cairo’s poorer, more marginal districts. In the years preceding the revolution, protests were also confined to such places. But the uprising altered the general public’s understanding of what is possible, and when workers and students protest, even in isolation, they often do so with revolution on their minds.

After a journalist had her iPad snatched during a demonstration at another Cairo university, the “anti-coup” group asked journalists to contact their media team in advance to arrange an “escort.” There would be no spontaneous reporting, it seemed. So when we arrived at the protest, my reporting partner and I called our contact in Students Against the Coup, Yousef Salhen, a 21-year-old student of Islamic Studies at Al-Azhar.

Salhen answered on the first ring and we found him in the crowd. A scruffy beard adorned his baby face. He wore a backpack and a bright blue “Muslim and Proud” T-shirt. Salhen participated alongside numerous non-Islamist protesters in the 2011 uprising that ended the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. A self-identified Islamist, he opposed the military’s removal of Morsi, and joined the protest camp in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square. Now he is the English spokesperson of Students Against the Coup. “We used to have Tahrir and the squares,” he said. “Now the squares are too dangerous.” As he spoke, the crowd grew to several hundred. Other students scaled a nearby building, unfurling a banner reading “The Second Azhar Uprising.”

As the crowd roared in front of us, I asked Salhen about Sheikh El-Tayeb’s support for the coup. “That is a disaster for us,” he said. “We even call him the grand Imam of the Coup. In Arabic, Sheikh Al-Askar. [Sheikh of the military] He blessed the coup. He gave it religious authority.”


The struggle for control over Al-Azhar predates the 2011 revolution by decades. The Egyptian state began attempting to bring Al-Azhar under its control during the Khedivate period in the 1860s, but it was not until 1961 when Gamal Abdel Nasser passed Law 103, that the entire institution was placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. The law also decreed that Sheikh Al-Azhar would be appointed by the president. For decades, the institution stood as part of the state’s bulwark against Islamist opposition. “Clearly it’s not a religious institution. It’s a state institution,” says Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a researcher and graduate student at the American University in Cairo who studies Al-Azhar. “It has been a state institution for long decades, at least since the 1960s.”

Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments has long relied on Al-Azhar to train the imams that deliver the Friday sermons in mosques large and small throughout Egypt. As a result, control over Al-Azhar is not just a matter of scholarly prestige. It is a battle over control of one of the most influential political microphones that exists in Egypt.

Because of its potentially enormous political payoff, and because it is a natural arena for Islamists to organize, Al-Azhar as an institution has also long been sought after by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements. Particularly during the 1990s and the 2000s, both groups attempted to make inroads in the form of religious and political outreach, creating student groups, and other informal modes of organizing. “They attempted to control the other strong religious actor in society, Al-Azhar,” says Hodaibi.

Political graffiti marks the wall of a building on the campus of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, in March, 2014.

Political graffiti marks the wall of a building on the campus of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, in March, 2014.
(Photo by Jared Malsin)


In the political chaos that followed the 2011 uprising, Al-Azhar grew in both autonomy and influence. Without the strong arm of the authoritarian presidency, state institutions, including the judiciary, Interior Ministry, and military, became untethered from centralized control, operating according to their own logic.

Al-Azhar was no exception. In fact, the military council that governed in the wake of Mubarak’s departure amended Law 103 to grant Al-Azhar effective autonomy. The constitution adopted in 2012 after a controversial drafting process dominated by Brotherhood and Salafi delegates also identified Al-Azhar “an encompassing independent Islamic institution with exclusive autonomy over its own affairs,” and mandated that a council of senior Azhar scholars be consulted on matters of Islamic law. The newly-reconstituted Council of Senior Scholars was also granted the power to name the Mufti, taming what had been a rival. Though the presidency retained a formal role in approving the Council’s choice, the shift meant that the other principle state-linked locus of religious authority had been effectively “brought within Azhar’s orbit,” as Nathan Brown, an expert on Egyptian politics at George Washington University recently wrote.

In spite of the potential for conflict, relations between the Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood remained calm throughout most of Mohamed Morsi’s year in power. Whatever doctrinal differences may have existed between the two organizations, it appears those were set aside, at least in the initial months. After all, the Brotherhood had also long demanded Azhar’s independence from the state and the restoration of its prestige.

Azhar leaders, and el-Tayeb in particular, were suspicious that Morsi aimed to “Brotherhoodize” key religious institutions. And it appears that there was some basis for those fears. Morsi did appoint Brotherhood figures to key positions in the Ministry of Religious Endowments. But if tensions existed, they did not result in confrontation until the very end of the Brotherhood’s rule.

Little is known about the precise sequence of events that led el-Tayeb to endorse the coup and join Sisi in the fateful June 3 news conference. It appears that the final split took place at least in part due to an act of overreaching by Morsi’s administration. In the late spring of 2013, the Ministry of Endowments held an important training session for new imams set to begin work in mosques throughout the country, but the organizers broke with convention, staffing the training not with Azhar sheikhs, but with prominent Salafi figures. Angered by the snub, el-Tayeb chose to boycott a speech Morsi gave in late June, days before the June 30 protests began. A few days later the sheikh appeared alongside Sisi, a partner in the military’s coalition against Morsi.

“He [el-Tayeb] fears a takeover from the Brotherhood, and he fears the democratization of the institution, because that would automatically lead to the ascent of Salafi voices,” says Hodaibi, who is himself the scion of a prominent Brotherhood family, but who resigned from the group in 2008 citing deep ideological differences.

The grand sheikh’s presence in that moment was crucial, granting the coup both a religious endorsement and an aura of social consensus. el-Tayeb took pains to frame the decision not as a political choice but as a continuation of Al-Azhar’s role as institution that operates above the fray of politics. “It was clear that we had to choose between two bitter choices,” el-Tayeb later said.


The new regime’s pious politics

A week after my visit to Al-Azhar, the police again entered the campus, firing birdshot and teargas in an attempt to scatter student protesters. Students had been outraged by court rulings sentencing 33 Azhar students to long prison terms, up to 14 years, for participating in demonstrations in December. During the new protest, students succeeded in tearing down a portion of the new steel wall ringing the administration building.

When I visited the campus, the wall, like all the buildings at the Nasr City campus, was covered in graffiti denouncing the military-backed government and its de facto leader, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who recently resigned from the military in order to launch what is presumed to be an unstoppable bid for the presidency. “Sisi is a killer.” “Sisi is a traitor,” read the tags. Another slogan is scrawled across the main gate: Rajayeen wa al-bashawiyat fahmeen. The phrase is difficult to render in English, but a rough translation is: “We’re coming back, and the establishment knows it.”

The unrest among students at Al-Azhar shows no sign of abating. But in spite of the strife within the institution, Al-Azhar is set to assume a much more prominent role in the new political arrangement under the leadership of the military and  the presumptive future president, Sisi. By taking on a prominent role in the anti-Brotherhood coalition and backing the current government, Al-Azhar is positioning itself to become more powerful than it has been in decades. Moreover, it is likely to play a central role in the new regime’s attempts to mobilize religion in its effort to build legitimacy.

“The current government has been promoting a conception of ‘Egyptian Islam,’ that is skeptical of foreign influence. It’s a religious narrative that is there to give legitimacy to whatever the ruler is doing,” says Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center in Washington. “It’s based on the longstanding theological notion of obedience to the leader.

As a part of the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the new government has been centralizing control over the practice of Islam. Whereas under the old regime, Al-Azhar was subordinate to the Ministry of Endowments, there are signs that the ministry is now showing deference to Al-Azhar. In October, the minister of endowments, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa began a process of shutting down private and unlicensed mosques, decreeing that only Azhar-qualified imams may preach.

The end of the Brotherhood-led government did not spell the end of religion in public life in Egypt. In fact, the post-Morsi political order is one in which religion and religious institutions play a central role. But, as George Washington University’s Nathan Brown writes, “the vision of Islam is emerging as more coherent and more susceptible to guidance by al-Azhar’s senior leadership.”

“It’s misleading to say that only the Muslim Brotherhood instrumentalizes religion,” says Shadi Hamid. “The military and its supporters do as well, but for their own particular political objectives, including shoring up popular support for an all-powerful state.”


Jared Malsin is a journalist based in Cairo. He has contributed to TIME, VICE, The New Republic, Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. He tweets at @jmalsin.

With support from the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion and International Affairs.

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