The new Azhar law and the battle over religious authority in Egypt

Besides being the world’s leading institution on Sunni Islam, al-Azhar is the top religious authority in Egypt and the main reference on Islamic affairs.

This does not only apply to religious education taught through al-Azhar’s schools and university colleges, but also through religious edicts (fatwas) issued on contemporary day-to-day matters.

Despite the relative autonomy it enjoys, al-Azhar has for years been a representative of state Islam, that is the version of Islam that the state wants to promote as opposed to that promoted by extremist groups, and most recently the Muslim Brotherhood.

Therefore, al-Azhar has always been seen as a beacon of moderate Islam. However, the institution was never immune to criticism whether over the content of its curricula, the influence of ultra-orthodox scholars, or the status of the grand imam and this is how a new law came into being.

Radical changes

The new law, proposed by MP Mohamed Abu Hamed, introduces radical changes to the way al-Azhar operates especially as far as the grand imam is concerned. According to the law, the grand imam’s term would be limited to six years and can only be renewed for a second time and the grand imam is to be elected by members of two al-Azhar bodies—The Council of Senior Scholars and the Islamic Research Committee.

The law details the procedures to be taken to investigate the grand imam in case of negligence or misconduct. The law also changes the makeup of the Council of Senior Scholars and the Azhar Supreme Council so that their membership is not only limited to religious scholars and is extended to other secular professions as well as individuals appointed by the president.

In case the new law is approved, non-religious al-Azhar colleges will no longer be under its jurisdiction and will instead be affiliated to the Ministry of Higher Education like other universities. As for religious colleges, the law proposed a comprehensive curricular reform that would remove all texts that might be misinterpreted by fundamentalists as justification for violence. Abu Hamed initially collected around 250 signatures from MPs that supported the law, yet many have withdrawn their signatures ever since.


The law was opposed by a sizable number of MPs. Mohamed Sharshar submitted a complaint to parliament speaker Ali Abel Aal in which he argued that the proposed law violated article 7 of the Egyptian constitution.

According to article 7, “Al-Azhar is an independent Islamic scientific institution, with exclusive competence over its own affairs” and “Al-Azhar’s Grand Sheikh is independent and may not be dismissed.” It also states that “the Law shall regulate the method of appointing the Grand Sheikh from amongst the members of Council of Senior Scholars.” According to Sharshar, the approval of the law will destabilize a religious institution that is not only Egyptian but also global.

“It has to be understood that al-Azhar and its grand imam are red lines,” he added. Sharshar collected more than 170 signatures from MPs who object to the law. MP Magdi Bayoumi said that he initially welcomed the law when he thought that it introduces reforms to the educational system at al-Azhar colleges. “But now this is a flagrant attack against the world’s symbol of religious tolerance and moderate Islam,” he said, adding that the House of Representatives should not interfere in the choice of the grand imam or the length of his term.

Supporters of the law mainly focused on the educational part and preferred to avoid broaching the grand imam controversy. MP Emad Gad said that education in Egypt will never progress as long as two separate systems exist, in reference to regular and Azhar colleges.

“You don’t find religious colleges anywhere in the world,” he said. “Plus, this system is against equality since scientific colleges in al-Azhar require much lower baccalaureate grades than regular ones which is both unfair and in violation of the constitution.”

Gad added that unifying curricula would allow for state supervision. “This way we can make sure that parts which would help in inciting violence or encouraging militant activities are removed.” Gamal Fahmi, head of the Culture and Media Committee at the National Human Rights Council agrees with Gad. “All curricula should be supervised by the Ministry of Higher Education.”

What is peculiar about al-Azhar law is not whether it will be approved, but rather whether it will be discussed in the first place. A request was submitted to parliament speaker Ali Abdel Aal by disapproving MPs that the law be dismissed before being discussed. This request was faced with strong objection on the part of law’s initiator. “If 60 MPs approve, then a law can be discussed at the House of Representatives, so it will be discussed” said Abu Hamed. “I am not forcing any MP to approve the law, but I and my fellow MPs are practicing our constitutional right at having the law presented, discussed, and voted for.”

Abu Hamed dismissed Abdel Aal’s statement about the law being shelved despite admitting that such statement did encourage many MPs to withdraw their signatures.

“However, I still have a confirmed 85, which means that the law will still be discussed,” he said. “My purpose is to get the support of members of the committees of education and scientific research, legislative and constitutional affairs, and religious affairs.”

According to researchers Nathan Brown and Mariam Ghanem, there is more than meets the eye in the new draft law. For them, the law reflects a new strategy followed by the state to pass laws without directly being involved.

“Technically, the draft was the initiative of Muhammad Abu Hamed, a Sisi supporter in the Egyptian parliament,” they wrote. “In that sense, it reflects a new trend in Egyptian legislation, in which controversial and authoritarian proposals are presented as coming from parliament rather than the presidency and security bodies (the more likely real initiators).

This keeps the regime’s fingerprints off of legislation and also avoids much involvement by concerned ministries, the cabinet, and other state bodies.” Brown and Ghanem argue that the same strategy was followed when passing the laws that governed the appointment of senior judges and the operation of nongovernmental organizations.

The four-town deal and Syria’s new sectarian distribution

The deal known as “the four town agreement,” the result of negotiations between warring factions and their allies in Syria’s six-year conflict, can be seen as a humanitarian solution and a war crime, depending on which angel it is seen from. As it is obvious from its name, the deal involves four towns: Zabadani and Madaya in the south west and Kefraya and Foah in the north.

The first two, predominantly Sunni, are besieged by Assad and Hezbollah forces since June 2015 and the second two, predominantly Shiite, are besieged by Islamist opposition forces since March 2015. The two pairs of towns are to be evacuated in parallel so that Sunnis will move rebel-held regions in the north, particularly around Idlib, and Shiites will move to regime held regions in the south west, particularly around Damascus. So, while the deal can be seen as a way of saving more than 64,000 trapped civilians who face death and hunger every day, it is arguably an attempt by the Syrian regime to alter the sectarian makeup of the country.

Journalist Turki Mustafa argues that the agreement is a flagrant attempt at turning the Syrian revolution into an explicit sectarian war. According to Mustafa, the story of Kefraya and Foah goes back to the first year of the revolution when the Syrian regime created of them military strongholds controlled by militias from Lebanon and Iraq and managed by Iran. “Those militias played a major role in mobilizing the residents of the two towns to become regime loyalists and to engage in armed conflicts with surrounding Sunnis under the pretext that they are all terrorists and affiliated to ISIS,” he wrote. “Meanwhile, Iran ordered Hezbollah to besiege Zabadani and Madaya in order to put pressure on its Sunni population.” Turki argues that this is not the first time that the Shiite camp imposed a demographic, sectarian-based change through besieging and starving civilians followed by forced evacuations. “This happened before in Barada Valley, Western Qalamun, and Western Ghouta.”

Journalist Hussein Abdul Aziz argued that one of the direct results of the agreement is changing the sectarian identity of the Syrian-Lebanese border from Zabadani in the south to al-Qusayr to the north. “It is not a coincidence that residents if Kefraya and Foah will be reportedly transferred to al-Qusayr, which is across the border from the predominantly Shiite city of Hermel in Lebanon,” he wrote.

“Obviously, Iran and Hezbollah agreed on making sure the border is dominated by Shiites, which also weakens Lebanese Sunnis in the city of Akkar and who are considered a historical extension of their Syrian counterparts in Homs.” According to Abdul Aziz, it won’t matter which part of the border is inhabited by Syrian or Lebanese citizens, since the criteria will be mainly sectarian. “They just have to be Shiites so that Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime can make sure they are in control.”

Rights activist Alaa Asaad, who is a Madaya local, said that while he is aware of the drawbacks of the agreement, he does not see an alternative. “This is the only way to end this humanitarian disaster before more people die and this what Madaya residents believe,” he said. “People here are starved, diseases are spreading, and there’s no medicine.

The people of Zabadani share the same feelings and want this to end,” he said. In response to criticism of the agreement by several opposition factions in Madaya and Zabadani and the possibility of intervention to stop the implementation of the agreement, Asaad said that the consequences will be grave for all four towns. “We should not forget that Iranians link progress in Madaya and Zabadani with that in Kefraya and Foah.” Asaad was mainly referring to statement issued by the Syrian Higher Negotiations Committee, the National Coalition, and the Free Syrian Army and which condemned the agreement as submission to Iran’s plan at altering the sectarian structure of the country in accordance with its political interests.

Political analysis Khalil al-Mekdad said that the evacuation of the four cities serves a sectarian agenda, yet objected to criticism leveled against residents of the four cities because they agreed to leave. “There had no choice after Assad and his allies took control of liberated areas in Rif Dimashq and cut off supplies to several towns,” he wrote. For Mekdad, opposition factions such as the Syrian Higher Negotiations Committee and the National Coalition and armed groups from Rif Homs in the north to Deraa in the south are to be held accountable. “They all fell prey to international interventions that eventually enabled Assad and his allies to gain more ground.” Mekdad argued that Iran is the real beneficiary of the deal since it is in its best interest to evacuate the Shiites in Kefraya and Foah.

“Most residents in the two towns are trained militants that fight on Assad’s side so having them besieged is a huge loss for the Assad-Iran camp.” On the other hand, Mekdad added, the Sunni opposition lost an important bargaining chip when it gave up those two towns and the Assad camp might now start targeting it in Idlib. “The other problem is that it is still not known for sure where all the Shiite militias of Kefraya and Foah will move, but if they settle in the Barada Valley, for example, it will be a disaster and they will be impossible to uproot later.”

Understanding anti-Christian terrorism and sectarian discourse in Egypt

While there was no need for more proof that terrorism in Egypt is taking a sharp sectarian turn, the latest attack that targeted a bus heading towards a monastery in the city of Minya in Upper Egypt and claimed the lives of 29 Copts enlightened many about a long-overlooked discourse that not only incites violence against Christians but also condones such attacks.

When ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, it dawned on many that their language is not very different from that used by a large number of extremists and at times, average citizens who adopt a similar ideology.

Eric Trager, researcher at Washington Institute for Near East Policy, holds the Muslim Brotherhood partially accountable not through taking part in the attacks, but through fueling hatred against Christians.

“To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t directly responsible for these attacks. But the Brotherhood’s anti-Christian incitement contributes to an environment that legitimizes them,” he wrote. “Indeed, Brotherhood leaders routinely portray Christians not as victims of violence, but as beneficiaries of an Egyptian government that has brutally repressed the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.”

According to Trager, members of the Muslim Brotherhood always portray Christians in Egypt as the enemy who are out to undermine Islam, thus influencing a considerable number of Egyptians who are swayed by arguments that use religion and impacting their empathy for Christians when they become victims of terrorist attacks. Trager added that Islamists in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular always promote the idea that “Christians are primarily responsible for the July 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s first elected president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, and for the severe repression of the Brotherhood that followed.”

Such discourse was particularly demonstrated in a statement posted by Muslim Brotherhood member Ahgmed al-Moghir right after the bus attack and in which he expressed his surprise at what he called “the Christian hysteria” that followed the terrorist operation and called Egyptian Christians “stupid” for thinking they’d get away with supporting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

“Christians allied with Sisi hoping that he would not only eliminate Islamists but Islam itself and he is already doing this through giving more powers to the Egyptian church,” he wrote. “The regime also needs Christians in order to curry favor with Christian countries in the West.”

According to Moghir, Egyptian Christians have been committing a series of crimes such as engaging in missionary activities using “money, sex, or coercion,” deriding the Islamic faith, unlawfully building monasteries on state land, and training “Christian militias” to threaten Muslims. “Now, they are paying for their crimes as well as for their diabolic alliance with the Egyptian regime. If they don’t reconsider their position and make peace with Muslim, they will keep paying the price.”

Journalist Hanan Hammad argued that anti-Christian discourse is comprised of several components, all of which contribute to the crimes committed against Christians. “These include preachers who insult Christians in the media and people who believe them and the state that doesn’t do anything about it,” she wrote, adding that propagators of hate speech always enjoy some form of immunity that encourage more to emerge and eventually trigger physical violence.

“It is wrong to believe that only a minority of Egyptians subscribe to this discourse because now they are increasing. In fact, the majority of Egyptian Muslims adopt a supremacist attitude towards Christians and which is manifested in day-to-day matters whether in the street, the work-space, public transportation, government offices… etc.” Hammad also cited examples of several incidents that demonstrated discrimination against Christians in Egyptian schools. “Teachers deride Christians in front of students while other cut Christian girls’ hair and thugs harass Christian girls. Meanwhile, an entire village can be emptied of its Christians because of a dispute with a Muslim under the nose of security institutions.” Hammad dismissed all the ceremonial gestures that follow every attack and which aim to show that relations between Muslims and Christians are amicable. “We don’t care about seeing a sheikh hugging a priest and we don’t want to hear clichés about how tolerant Egyptians are. We better stop to see where we all went wrong because we are all responsible.”

Writer Fatma Naoot had a similar view as she argued that members of ISIS are not only the militants who took part in the terrorist attack, but rather everyone who promoted or subscribed to the ideology on which such attacks are based. “These include everyone who turns the people against Christians through religious edicts whether by official religious figures, mosque imams, or TV preachers, everyone who gloats on social media when a terrorist attack targets Christians, and everyone who remains silent while all this happens,” she wrote.

MP and representative of the Solidarity Committee at the House of Representatives Mohamed Abu Hamed submitted a draft law against hate crimes in response to the recent attacks against Christians and which he believes are a result of a sectarian discourse that portrayed Christians as infidels and second-class citizens.

According to article 6 of the law, “hate speech is punished by minimum jail sentence of 5 years and/ or minimum fine of LE 100,000,” while article 7 states that “inflaming sectarian sentiments among individuals or groups” is punishable by a minimum jail sentence of 6 months and/ or a minimum fine of LE 30,000. According to article 8, the jail sentence increases to minimum 7 years and the fine to minimum LE 100,000 if those offences are committed by religious figures or civil servants or when they take place in places of worship. In article 9, “accusing people of apostasy is punishable by life in jails and amounts to the death sentence if this accusation involves incitement to kill that actually leads to a murder.”