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The Untold Story of Al-Azhar and the Egyptian Revolution

It is hard to believe that eleven years have already passed since the tough, but inspiring, Arab Spring revolutions that forever changed the face of the Middle East. Although the triggers that initiated the revolutions in affected countries were comparatively similar, the aftermath in each individual country took a distinctive shape and yielded a different outcome. The scope of the security chaos, the scale of competition over the vacuum in power between powerful political players, including members of the falling regime, the political biases of the military institution, and the religious biases of the grassroots citizens are among the top factors that led to different sequels in each case.

In the case of Egypt, most specialized scholars attribute the success of the revolution against Mubarak, in January 2011, to the decision of the military institution to take the side of the revolutionists and not the side of the authoritarian regime. After the ouster of Mubarak, the Egyptian Armed Forces played a vital role in managing the post-revolution chaos, supporting the public rebellion against the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013, and gradually bringing the country back to political and economic stability.

However, it would be unfair to claim that the Egyptian Armed Forces, single-handedly, succeeded in countering the perilous rise of political Islamist groups – namely; the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Movement – to the top of presidential and legislative power, after the fall of Mubarak. The role of Al-Azhar Sheikhdom, and the Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb, in this particular battle is one of the most heroic and inspiring, but also the most untold and underestimated, stories of the Egyptian revolution.

Between Al-Azhar and the Military

In a country, like Egypt, where religion dictates the minute details of daily routine of most citizens, the fight led by Al-Azhar against political Islamists and the violent extremist thought, long before and long after the 2011 revolution, is equally important to the role of the Armed Forces in preserving state security against terrorist organizations, in the post-revolution aftermath. In fact, history shows that every time the military and Al-Azhar had aligned their visions and chose to cooperate, the political stability and performance of the nation-state alleviated. In contrast, every time the military power or the state leadership tried to marginalize Al-Azhar, political Islamists and violent extremists thrived.

Al-Azhar Mosque and University, established over a millennium ago, in 972, was a key player in shaping the will and stamina of the Egyptian grassroots citizens in face of internal and external political turbulences that threatened their existence, long before Egypt had an organized national military. In the 18th century, Umar Makram, a brilliant scholar from Al-Azhar mobilized grassroots citizens into successful nonviolent campaigns that challenged the Mamluks, defeated the Ottoman Empire, and forced the might French Army, led by the shrewd Napoleon Bonaparte, to withdraw from Egypt in 1801.

In the 1800s, two prominent scholars from Al-Azhar, Refaa Al-Tahtawy and his devout associate Muhammed Abdo, who were sent for study in Europe after graduation, created a cultural renaissance in Egypt and started what we know today as the Egyptian civil society. Abdo, also, aided Ahmed Urabi, a famous military commander in the then-emerging Egyptian army, to mobilize a successful grassroots campaign to challenge the unfair rule of Khedive Tawfik.

Nonetheless, after the Free Officers revolution, in 1952, the relationship between Al-Azhar and the Armed Forces, which took the political leadership of the country since then, swayed between abusive love and cautious hate. Sadly, this availed the space for radical Islamists to promote their flawed rhetoric about Islam and Sharia among the religiously pious grassroots citizens.

Former President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who came to power with the mission to promote communism, suppressed Al-Azhar and exerted a tremendous effort to mitigate its influence on grassroots citizens. After him, former President Anwar Elsadat depended heavily on the non-official religious/political group of the Muslim Brotherhood in defeating the heated opposition he received from the communist supporters of Gamal Abdel Nasser, when he tried to apply liberalist reform policies, in both economics and politics. Ironically, the Muslim Brotherhood killed Elsadat latter, after he disregarded their rejection to convening a peace treaty with Israel. Then came former President Mubarak, who remained in power for thirty years, during which he relied on the Coptic Church and Al-Azhar in selling his political agenda to the public.

However, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 against Mubarak, brought Al-Azhar back to the forefront, alongside the Armed Forces, to lead the multifaceted battle against the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, who played on the religious piety of the grassroots citizens to seize political and legislative power, after the fall of Mubarak.

The Untold Story of Al-Azhar’s Ahmed Al-Tayeb

The religious, social, and political role of Al-Azhar witnessed a sharp decline during the first two decades of Mubarak’s reign, due to Mubarak’s exaggerated control over Al-Azhar’s leadership. That was paralleled by an expansion in the scope of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists among grassroots citizens, especially in rural towns away from the Capital City of Cairo. However, this submissive state of affairs between Mubarak’s regime and Al-Azhar changed, dramatically, by the appointment of Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb, a professor of Islamic Philosophy, as the President of Al-Azhar University in 2003, and then as the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, in 2010.

Quietly, Al-Tayeb restored the lost respect and appreciation of Al-Azhar among local, regional, and international audience. Under his leadership, Al-Azhar as a religious and academic institution returned back to participating effectively and influencing the course of socio-political developments happening in Egypt, during the last decade of Mubarak’s era, as well as during and after the 2011 revolution.

On his highly active seven years as the President of Al-Azhar University (2003 – 2010), Al-Tayeb was determined to restore Al-Azhar’s international reputation and credibility, while de-escalating the growing influence of the radical rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. In their quest to destroy the nation-state and replace it with an Islamic Caliphate of their own, the political Islamists had to destroy the legacy and credibility of Al-Azhar in the eyes of the public. In mosques, they asked their allies from the Salafist movement to preach the public against Al-Azhar scholars by calling them “the Sheikhs of the Sultan;” meaning that they are Mubarak’s loyalists, who serve him against the rules of Allah. In parallel, the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated students and teachers at Al-Azhar University were funded to organize protests, on a regular basis, inside the campus, with the purpose to disturb and pressure Al-Azhar’s administration and further shaken the respect of Al-Azhar scholars in the eyes of the public.

The relentless offenses by political Islamists against Al-Azhar reached its peak, in December 2006, when the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated students upgraded their protests inside the university’s campus into a violent militia show, wearing Islamic militia outfits. The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who most of them were new Members of Parliament at that time, attempted to disown the incident by cunningly justifying the militia show as a random unplanned reaction by angry students to the unresponsive administration of the university. However, this one reckless show of violence caused the group to lose a big portion of its grassroots and international support, while it gave the Mubarak regime a golden opportunity to squash Muslim Brotherhood leadership through military trials.

In his capacity as the President of Al-Azhar University, Al-Tayeb initiated internal investigations into the militia show incident, and submitted its conclusions to State Security Department. As a result, the police arrested forty leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Khairat Al-Shatter, the group’s most powerful man and de factosupreme leader. Between 2007 and 2010, almost all the leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood were subjected to various episodes of confinement and military trials. Meanwhile, Al-Tayeb spent the months, following the militia show incident, in detoxifying the university from the affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood. He fired the students who participated in the militia show, prevented further protests or sit-ins from happening inside the campus, and removed the professors and administrative employees affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood from policy-making positions inside the university.

This necessary process of re-organizing Al-Azhar University, from within, gave Al-Tayeb a chance to resume his battle against Islamic extremists outside the walls of the university. He started by reaching out to national television with proposals and action plans to improve the content of the Islamic shows. He allowed scholars from Al-Azhar to preach to the general public on the national television against the widely spread extremist rhetoric of political Islamists. In parallel, Al-Tayeb launched “the Medical Convoys of Al-Azhar” project, which allowed doctors and imams from Al-Azhar University to travel to poor rural areas, on a regular basis, to provide free-of-charge medical and social services to grassroots citizens. The main purpose of that effort was to free the grassroots citizens from the manipulation of the Muslim Brotherhood, who abused charity work and religious piety to win the political support of the poor citizens in parliamentary elections.

In addition, Al-Tayeb did not give up on his equally important goal to refurbish Al-Azhar’s international reputation and credibility. He started by including a post-graduate academic program that teaches Islamic studies in English to interested Egyptian or non-Egyptian individuals, whether they received their graduate education at a religious school or a secular college. In 2007, Al-Tayeb founded and managed “The World Organization of Al-Azhar Graduates” with the purpose to revive connections with Al-Azhar graduates, from foreign nationalities, and encourage them to act as ambassadors to Al-Azhar in their home countries. In parallel, the association partnered with other universities and Islamic institutions, worldwide, on educating English language to Egyptian graduate students of Al-Azhar. Those particular efforts had a tremendous effect on Al-Azhar’s reputation worldwide, and simultaneously upgraded the skills of Al-Azhar scholars and imams and improved their influence on the Islamic rhetoric, at home and abroad.

The impressive success of Al-Tayeb in his role as the President of Al-Azhar University made him the best candidate to the most prestigious position of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar. In March 2010, after the death of his predecessor, Mohamed Sayed Tantawy, Al-Tayeb was appointed as the Grand Imam. The new position helped him score more winning points against political Islamists and extremists. He went vocal on criticizing Salafist extremist beliefs, in general, and their discriminative fatwas against women, in particular. He brazenly rejected Niqab as an Islamic dress for women, and called for banning the fatal practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) against minor girls, which was widely promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists as an Islamic practice.

Obviously, the Muslim Brotherhood were extremely offended by seeing Al-Tayeb on the top of Al-Azhar leadership. They launched fierce media campaigns against him, where they went as far as describing him as a “Mubarak loyalist” who “hijacked” Al-Azhar. They even claimed that he is not qualified to the position of the Grand Imam because of his background as a professor of philosophy, which is forbidden in their extremist thought.

Islamists’ Failure to Defeat the Grand Imam

In the heat of the 2011 revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood tried hard to remove Al-Tayeb from his position as the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, so they can proceed with their quest to power, after neutralizing revolutionists, and discrediting the military leadership. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood asked their affiliated students at Al-Azhar University to organize protests calling for administrative reform. As the repetitive protests inside the campus gained momentum and supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood elements organized louder and wider protests outside the office of Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb at the headquarters of the Sheikhdom of Al-Azhar, calling for his removal. They, also, sugge