As the political tension between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood continues to unfold inside university campuses, the turbulent power dynamics of Al-Azhar have resurfaced.
The Brotherhood are claiming that up to 170 of their students have been arrested in recent violent clashes with the police on university campuses, one of the few remaining spaces in which the Islamist group can operate following their forced ouster from power in July. Brotherhood-affiliated students claim that police have used excessive force, sometimes live fire, to disperse their protests.
But despite the security crackdown on Brotherhood activism in university campuses, the Brotherhood maintain a strong presence in the Muslim world’s leading religious and educational institution, Al-Azhar.
The Muslim Brotherhood student movement controls over 70 percent of the university’s union, with complete domination over the student unions of every university faculty. For example, the Brotherhood controls almost 100 percent of the student unions of theological faculties, where Sharia and Islamic jurisdiction are taught.
This has led to power dynamics on campus that consist of Brotherhood control on the grassroots level as represented by a largely sympathetic body of students, faculty members and staff, and a state inclined leadership.
The leadership, under the helm of Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyeb, has long reproduced the state discourse of Al-Azhar being the house of a moderate vision of Islam. Tayyeb has shown his support for the current pro-military government that came to power on the heels of the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi this summer. This has fueled a recent wave of campus activism on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But students affiliated with the Brotherhood believe that the mounting anger against the state at Al-Azhar is far from being exclusively ideological or simply associated with a larger political dynamic.
“Students inside Al-Azhar have a lot to be angry about,” a student leader in the Brotherhood movement at the university tells Mada Masr, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Brotherhood student says the relationship between the students and the university administration is “deteriorating” as “institutionalized corruption and mismanagement run deep at Al-Azhar University.”
“The political stances of the Al-Azhar leadership recently are making more students disgruntled. Tayyeb said that the army takeover was meant to prevent bloodshed, and when the bloodshed did not stop, but increased against the Brotherhood, he declared he was going into seclusion — what sort of stance is that?” he asks.
Meanwhile, the student maintains that most of the students are not necessarily opposing the military takeover, but rather rejecting the policies of the administration.
But while this struggle between the Brotherhood and the state over Al-Azhar is visible today on its university campus, it is also not new.
Before the Brotherhood’s ascent to power, the state tried to maintain its grip over Al-Azhar. A law organizing the powers of the Supreme Council of Scholars (SCS) — the body entitled to elect the grand sheikh and the country’s mufti as well as decide the policies and regulations of the institution — was passed by the then ruling military council in January 2012, only a few days before the first Brotherhood-dominated parliament convened. Critics believe that the military and Al-Azhar leadership rushed to pass the law before the parliament convened in order to avoid any attempts by the Brotherhood to intervene in the drafting process.
With the Brotherhood’s rise to power, many observers described ambitions by the group to expand its influence to the SCS.
A food-poisoning scandal inside the university’s dorms that left 500 students hospitalized earlier this year was a sign of deteriorating management inside the university, which led the university’s students to storm Tayyeb’s office, demanding his resignation.
The Brotherhood was heavily criticized for inciting the students against Tayyeb, especially after a decision by SCS to exclude the group’s scholar Abdel Rahman al-Barr from holding the position of al-mufti.
Barr was elected as the dean of Al-Azhar’s Faculty of Principles of Religion and Daawa in Mansoura in 2011 following the January 25 revolution. Before the revolution, university deans were appointed by the government, and security prevented Brotherhood-affiliated scholars from holding such posts.
But this more recent power struggle hinges on a longer established presence of the Brotherhood on campus, which has always bothered the state.
Moaty Yassin, coordinator of the student movement of Dostour, which was founded by reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei, says that although there has been a considerable presence of more liberal currents within the student movement in Al-Azhar, the Brotherhood still enjoy precedence.
“The academic nature of Al-Azhar attracts Brotherhood members who can in turn easily attract students with a similar social, religious and conservative background,” he explains.
Sherif Younis, a historian at Helwan University, sees the Brotherhood control over Al-Azhar as a product of state absence.
“The Brotherhood managed, as they did with every institution in this country, to fill the vacuum of the state; which remained too concerned with security,” he says.
Younis argues that it was former President Gamal Abdel Nasser who paved the ground for this strong Brotherhood presence — for instance, efforts to introduce liberal arts education into Al-
Azhar’s curriculum allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to easily influence the institution.
“The Brotherhood student movement is the product of modern education in Egypt, as we have seen in the strong presence created in the 1970s by the Muslim Brotherhood student leaders in schools of medicine and engineering in Egyptian universities,” he explains.
Younis also adds that the teaching methods in Al-Azhar depend heavily on textbooks that show only one-sided analysis and arguments.
“These teaching methodologies introduced more extremism inside Al-Azhar,” hence providing a fertile environment for the Brotherhood to operate, he says.
For Younis, it was easy for the state to control the institution from the top, by appointing clerics affiliated with the state.
Today with an ongoing battle between the security apparatus and the Brotherhood of Al-Azhar, it remains to be seen whether this state control over Al-Azhar will continue to unsettled.
For the Brotherhood student leader, real independence of Al-Azhar would show the strength of the Brotherhood.
“We see a contradiction between the institution’s leadership and its grassroots,” he says. “Let us elect the grand sheikh and the situation will completely change, it is as simple as that.”