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The future of Al-Azhar

Direct control of Al-Azhar will soon become a priority for the Muslim Brotherhood, but it may bring them more trouble than they bargain on

Amr Adly , Sunday 26 Aug 2012
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 On 3 January 2012, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued the Al-Azhar law. 

 Promulgated a couple of weeks before the first sitting of the post-revolution parliament, an assembly now disbanded, the law granted Cairo's prestigious religious institution considerable autonomy and gave the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar wide-ranging scope to manage internal affairs after after six decades of it being essentially annexed to the Egyptian state. 
 
The law was seen in January as a sign of the SCAF's willingness to secure the independence of a number of major institutions before the final transfer of power to elected bodies with likely Islamist majorities.
 
Al-Azhar was perceived by many secularists as the bulwark of moderate Islam, able to counter the rise of Salafist Islamist currents as well as the Muslim
Brotherhood. Back then the idea sounded good: granting autonomy to a moderate institution that can fend off a more conservative takeover of the religious sphere.
 
Al-Azhar's future status is becoming even more critical as religion and politics are bound to merge strongly with the rise of Islamist parties to political power.
 
The SCAF's original plan, however, did not work out, hampered by President Morsi's successful removal in early August of key members of the military council and the annulment of its constitutional additions.
 
Now it seems that the Egyptian state has just a single master, its elected president. The Muslim Brotherhood has not shown any reluctance in using its formal power through the parliament and presidency to tighten its grip on state institutions. 
 
The Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council appointed Brotherhood allies as the heads of state-owned newspapers. One from the Brotherhood's ranks was appointed to head the Ministry of Information.
 
Now it seems the Brotherhood is prioritising by moving to control the institutions of ideology-production that it has inherited from the previous authoritarian regime. 
 
The Brothers are not, apparently, keen on liberalising these areas or privatising state-owned newspapers and TV channels. Rather, it seems that a crackdown on independent and private media is being prepared using the arsenal of laws and regulations introduced during Mubarak's rule.
 
In such a context, the direct control of Al-Azhar will soon be at the top of the agenda, encouraged perhaps by the fact that the Brotherhood has a sizable number of supporters within its halls.
 
So what will happen if the Brotherhood puts its hands on Egypt's oldest and most prestigious Islamic institution?
 
To start with, the Brotherhood will achieve the short-term goal of rallying Al-Azhar behind their political cause. 
 
Al-Azhar which has been historically supportive of whoever rules Egypt will reassume its long-established practices and back the Brotherhood's public policies. 
 
The Brotherhood would achieve another, longer-term and more indirect, goal of mixing politics with religion, something that corresponds to the Brotherhood's ideological conviction of Islam's comprehensive nature.
 
Yet inheriting the long tradition of Al-Azhar's dependency on the state means that the Brotherhood are likely to inherent the very contradictions that Mubarak's regime faced in their struggle to tue the religious sphere to their political ends. 
 
Using Al-Azhar to legitimise the political decisions taken by the president or any future MB-dominated parliament means the institution will have to fight anti-establishment and anti-system tendencies and views traditionally held by many Salafist and Islamist groups.
 
Issues such as the peace treaty with Israel, tourism, banking, the status of Copts and other non-Muslim minorities are likely to be religiously contentious and controversial even under an Islamist government led by the Brotherhood. 
 
In this sense, the Brotherhood will not only inherit Mubarak's authoritarian state, they will inherit its enemies and allies as well.
 
For instance, the Brotherhood will have serious problems playing around with the current structure of the Egyptian economy. 
 
Economic recovery, necessary for the creation of jobs and the generation of growth, depends heavily on getting tourism back on track regardless of religious reservations over the behaviour of foreign visitorss that have been voiced by Islamist politicians and clerics.
 
The same applies to the current banking sector which has been deemed usury-based by many Islamists.
 
In the same vein, the Brothers's takeover of the Egyptian state requires that they honour its international commitments vis-a-vis the United States and Israel. Security coordination in Sinai and regarding Gaza will soon become a controversial issue amongst the Islamists themselves. Similarly, the Brotherhood cannot afford any further deterioration in Muslim-Coptic relations. 
 
All of these commitments will be translated sooner rather than later into contentious political decisions. Their stances will be supported by a MB-dominated religious establishment in the face of other dissatisfied Islamist groups and individuals.
 
While the Brotherhood's plan to control the Nasserist apparati of ideology-production such as the media and education is likely to bring them into conflict with the secularists, their attempted domination of the religious sphere will drive them into a clash with the Islamists. 
 
The formation of an Islamist opposition to the Brotherhood is already in the making. The clash with Jihadi militants in Sinai is a first instance, but it could extend to the Nile valley amongst like-minded groups with anti-American and anti-Zionist stances.
 
As the Brotherhood becomes more immersed in the pragmatic, day-to-day management of the country, it will have to come to terms with the probable rise of a religious far-right calling for former ideological stances under an Islamic government. 
 
This trend has already been tested with Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who may prove to be the precursor of a populist Islamist movement.
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