Why Al-Azhar Is Resisting Sisi's Religious Reforms For Egypt

The president thinks it's time to 'revolutionize' Islam. But to do so, he needs help from the country's oldest, most prestigious Sunni university.

Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque and university
Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque and university
Georges Malbrunot

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.

"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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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