For its part, the regime has many tools to deploy that go far beyond public spats. It controls all media, so that when Al-Azhar scholars issue their opinions on religious controversies in the form of statements, media outlets can be told to ignore or delete coverage of these. This occurred recently, after the council of Al-Azharʹs senior scholars publicly attacked a Tunisian draft law granting equality in inheritance to men and women as representing a violation of very clear religious texts. Pro-regime media in Egypt may have been told not to report on the statement.
There are other tools as well. The Egyptian armed forces recently organised its tenth seminar for Al-Azhar students, which reportedly aimed to "increase the awareness of school and university students of the heroic actions of the armed forces to eliminate terrorism." Thus, for the well-armed regime, the grand imam of Al-Azhar may be annoying (and Sisi has said as much), but he is not threatening.
A grinding war of positions
So is the tension only about power politics, not principle? Actually, religion is very much at issue and the ostensible dispute – over the significance of challenging hadiths – is quite relevant to the matter. The president is focused on perceived security threats and is therefore calling for support in combatting radical ideas, an effort he sees as being hindered by the fetters and distractions of bookishness.
For Tayeb, the sunnah is central and those who are trained in interpreting an intellectual tradition that is over one thousand years old should be accorded respect and deference. Reform is very much in order, but to the grand imam textual fidelity is a sign of piety, expertise and righteousness, not obscurantism. Those who wish to squeeze new interpretations out of that tradition cannot abandon unambiguous Koranic texts or authentic hadiths.
In short, the conflict between Sisi and Tayeb is both religious and political, centering on leadership and the relative roles of civil authorities who lead the political system and religious scholars trained in textual interpretation. The president and grand imam are not engaged in a dramatic war of manoeuvre, but instead in a grinding war of positions, over the oversight of sermons in mosques, the issuing of fatwas and reform of the curriculum used to train imams.
Egyptian presidency muscling in on imam training
And it is this last area – what is taught – that may actually be the most important field of battle in the long term, even though the controversy is more complicated and quieter, as the regime attempts to wrest the matter out of Al-Azharʹs hands. The Ministry of Religious Endowments is pushing an initiative in which imams will be trained at the National Academy, which is attached to the presidency, rather than at Al-Azhar.
The ministry recently announced that it had finished preparing its curricula and will start training imams at the academy by the end of January 2019. The curricula will reportedly include not only religious science but also law, politics, sociology and psychology. Thatʹs because officials have often criticised Al-Azharʹs training programmes for including only religious science, which they say does not encourage enlightened thinking.
Going forward, the regime may have to double down on its attempts to subordinate Al-Azhar through more subtle means, so as not to push directly against a still widely venerated institution in Egyptian society and the Muslim world. Tayebʹs autonomy and constituencies allow him to strike an independent voice, making periodic bouts of public tension again likely in Egyptian political and religious life.
Nathan J. Brown and Cassia Bardos
Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.