CAIRO — Two armored vehicles are stationed at the entrance to the al-Azhar campus in Cairo's Medina al-Nasr neighborhood. A kneeling policeman prays on the lawn while, in his sentry box, a guard asks visitors for their pass.

During this election period, the al-Azhar University is under close surveillance — even more than usual. "There is no freedom here. We cannot speak. But I will simply tell you that al-Azhar's DNA is Islamic," says Ahmed, a literature student and sympathizer of the Muslim Brotherhood, which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been fighting with an iron fist since expelling them from power in 2013.

Five years on, the millennial cradle of Sunni Islamic thought continues to resist the president. Behind the high walls of this venerable institution, which welcomes 300,000 foreign students each year, a power struggle between the political and religious spheres is taking place.

"Al-Azhar represents one million students for the whole of Egypt and schools all over the country," says Khairy Shaarawy, head of the department of Islamic Studies. "Next to the office of the great imam, who is surrounded by 80 scholars, there are 75 faculties, and the Dar al-Iftaa, where the ulemas issue religious decrees." Those decrees, in turn, have a direct impact on the world's 1.5 billion Sunnis throughout the world. Little wonder al-Sisi would like more control over this major player in Egyptian political life.

He's walking a tightrope.

In the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser "got his hands on al-Azhar by naming the great imam," explains Shaarawy. "During the war against Israel in 1973, al-Azhar mobilized the population. Anwar Sadat then entrusted more powers to the religious leaders against his Communist enemies. As for Hosni Mubarak, he reframed the teaching a little, but the Saudi Wahhabi influence was already infiltrated."

When the revolution broke out in 2011, the University's president, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, tried to calm the students down. But the majority demanded that Mubarak go, and would, one year later, hail Mohamed Morsi's victory. The first Islamist president in Egypt's history sought to infiltrate the assembly of great scholars around the University's president. “Only a few accepted,” Khairy Shaarawy recalls.

When the army took back power in 2013 to entrust the reins of the country to al-Sisi, Sheikh al-Tayyeb showed himself alongside the new raïs, during his first television address. Behind the scenes, the Muslim Brotherhood — or what was left of it after the merciless purges against the Islamists — swore to make al-Azhar the bastion of the resistance against al-Sisi. They had on their side a majority of the teachers, who are said to be sensitive to this day to pro-Brotherhood ideas.

"You feel it in the meetings you hold with them, even if we're careful because we're afraid that snitches might have been infiltrated," says Ahmed, the literature student and Muslim Brotherhood sympathizer. How many students share his leanings? A quarter, according to Shaarawy. Many more, according to Ahmed.

Reluctant to change

At the end of 2014, in a speech like no president had ever given, al-Sisi called on al-Azhar's imams to "revolutionize" Islam by updating texts that are more than 10 centuries old. And he enjoined the University's president to lead this fight. "Honorable imam," al-Sisi said. "You bear responsibility before Allah. The whole world is waiting for your word, because the Islamic nation is tearing itself apart, disintegrating, and rushing to its own destruction, from our own hands."

Since then, al-Sisi — who has been confronted with Islamist terrorism, in the Sinai desert but also in the country's largest cities such as Alexandria, struck by a deadly attack on March 24 — hasn't stopped repeating his injunctions to al-Azhar. But most of them have gone unheeded. Not because of the hostility of Sheikh al-Tayyeb, who, like Shaarawy, also studied at the Sorbonne, but because of the resistance from a majority of senior traditionalist scholars who sit around him.

Al-Azhar students protesting in Feb. 2015 — Photo: Amr Sayed/APA Images

"Sheikh al-Tayyeb is doing a balancing act between the conservatives and the reformists," a diplomat notes. "He's walking a tightrope."

President al-Sisi wanted to control Friday preachings in the hundreds of thousands of mosques across Egypt. But al-Azhar opposed it. "The rais wanted to unify the sermons so that they could be written by the Ministry of Awqaf (religious endowments) and made accessible on its website," explains a researcher who insists on remaining anonymous. "Finally, al-Azhar only agreed to receive elements of language for the preaches."

Even if thousands of Islamist leaders and sympathizers have been jailed by the authorities, they still manage to spread their ideology in a number of clandestine mosques — about 20% of the total number of mosques, according to some estimates.

There was also resistance on the issue of verbal divorce. The government wanted to abolish this persistent practice whereby husbands (but not wives) can end a marriage by uttering certain words. But there again, the most conservative among the great ulemas of al-Azhar said no.

We can't take away their faith.

"Al-Azhar is in favor of reform," the anonymous researcher insists. "But its operational tools differ from those used by the government, which tries to force its way through. We are an easy scapegoat. The government says the attacks are al-Azhar's making, that the violence in the Sinai is al-Azhar's making. But it must also recognize its own security flaws."

If the university has indeed shaped the thinking of a majority of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders, it claims it has never seen a future Jihadist pass through its ranks. And it clearly stands against women wearing the niqab and against female genital mutilation.

On the other hand, though it condemns ISIS, it remains incapable of excommunicating jihadists. "They are Muslim criminals. We denounce them as criminals," says Shaarawy. "But we can't take away their faith. Otherwise we get into the jihadists' game."

The government's wish to see the "modernization" of al-Azhar will take a long time to materialize.


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