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.

Victoria Hazou/AFP/Newscom
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.

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.

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

Al Azhar is still a leading center of Islamic theology and its grand sheikh is the top religious cleric in Egypt, advising the state on religious matters and providing religious guidance to the country and the greater Muslim world. Since the 1950s, the Egyptian president has appointed the grand sheikh and controlled Al Azhar's budget, reducing public faith in the institution.

“The majority of people don’t trust Al Azhar discourse, because they view it as the discourse representing the government,” says Khalil al-Anani, senior scholar at the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Durham University in England.

During his leadership, Tantawi battled similar accusations and encountered backlash to his some of his fatwas (religious edicts), which many saw as supporting the Egyptian government’s policies at the expense of religious independence and legitimacy.

“Tantawi was a very weak grand sheikh. He was not aware of the fact that he is the grand sheikh of Islam in the Muslim world, he acted as an official Egyptian employee,” says Fahmy Howeidy, an influential Egyptian columnist and political commentator. Tantawi bred controversy when he publicly greeted Israeli President Shimon Peres, approved building a wall with Gaza, and sanctioned the use of interest rates in banking, which many Islamic scholars believe should be prohibited as usury.

But others see positive aspects to the legacy of Tantawi, who sought opposed the spread of the Salafy ideology adhered to by Al Qaeda and took a firm stand against female genital mutilation.

“Tantawi was able to issue in very critical moments daring fatwas, without appearing pressured by the wider Islamist spectrum,” says Mr. Hamzawy. “He managed to keep the course of Al Azhar as an agent of moderation.”

An independent leader?

The new grand sheikh will undergo similar scrutiny. Tayeb, formerly the Grand Mufti of Egypt who received his PhD in Islamic philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, is seen as an internationally influenced moderate. But will he be able to strike a more autonomous line?

“I don’t think that he will have the courage to distance himself from the state. If he will not do this, he will not have public appeal or public audience. He will lose them like his predecessor did,” says Mr. al-Anani.

But Howeidy is more optimistic that Tayeb “will act a little bit more independently compared to Sheikh Tantawi.”

Whatever the future holds for Tayeb, his appointment comes at an important time for Mubarak. After weeks of speculation surrounding the president’s health after recent surgery, Mubarak’s appointment of Tayeb from his hospital in Germany sent a simple message: “President Mubarak ... is running everything in the country again,” says Howeidy.

Stacher at Kent State, referring to speculation in Egypt that Mubarak is grooming his son Gamal to replace him, says that when push comes to shove Tayeb won't speak against a dynastic transfer of power. "Don't expect him to ever speak up against succession," he says.

(With reporting by Dan Murphy.)

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