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Egypt names Ahmed el-Tayeb sheikh of Al-Azhar University

Ahmed el-Tayeb, who holds a PhD in Islamic philosophy from the Sorbonne, is expected to be a better face for Egypt's Al Azhar University, which was once preeminent in the Sunni world.

By Sarah A. TopolCorrespondent / March 22, 2010

Al-Azhar Mosque, affiliated with Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Ahmed el-Tayeb, a PhD from Sorbonne University, will take the lead at Cairo's Al-Azhar University after the previous sheikh, Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, passed away earlier this month.

Victoria Hazou/AFP/Newscom



As Egypt gears up for a succession battle over who will fill President Hosni Mubarak’s shoes, a smooth succession has just been carried out at the top of one of the Egyptian institutions that he's long relied on to secure and support his rule.

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Today, the French-educated Ahmed el-Tayeb become Egypt’s top cleric, taking the helm of Cairo’s ancient Al Azhar University and replacing Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, who passed away earlier this month.

Once the preeminent center of Sunni Islamic teaching from Morocco to Indonesia, Al Azhar steadily lost influence in the 20th century as television gave regional voice to Muslim scholars outside its hierarchy and as Al Azhar came to be viewed by Islamists like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood as a co-opted branch of the Egyptian state.

Now Al Azhar's future, both as a force in Egypt and to a lesser extent in the broader Sunni world, is riding on Mr. Tayeb. Scholars of modern Egypt expect Tayeb to be a more outward looking face for the institution than the famously prickly Tantawi, but also expect he'll be as thoroughly in the government's camp as his predecessor.

"He’s got a platform now – Tayeb has got this famous, brand-named institution behind him," says Josh Stacher, a political scientist at Kent State University in Ohio who studies Egyptian politics. "He’s a better face for Al Azhar than Tantawi. What we’re dealing with is a sharp, more globalized person who can speak a better game. But don't expect a great deal of independence from the government.

The tenure of Tantawi, viewed as too liberal by some and too subservient to the Egyptian regime by others, was clouded by Egypt’s endeavor to conform the institution’s religious interpretations to its political agenda. Tantawi struggled to present the government's argument that secular leadership, rather than the Islamist one sought by the Brotherhood, was in the interests of Egypt's people and frequently came under fire for toeing the government line.

That's a struggle that is now being taken up by Tayeb.

“Egypt is undergoing a tough transformational time socially, politically, culturally,” says Amr Hamzawy, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “[Tayeb] will face the same tensions which Tantawi faced in terms of the state tendency to instrumentalize Al Azhar, to use Al Azhar in key political moments, and Al Azhar’s attempt as an institution to pull out of daily politics.”

Azhar's influence