Local media reported Sunday night that Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend tendered his resignation at the request of Prime Minister Sherif Ismail.
Zend was “exempted from office,” reportedly over remarks he made about the prophet, according to the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper.
Zend recently attacked journalists who published stories implicating him and his family in corruption cases during a television interview on the Sada al-Balad channel. He told host Hamdy Rizk that he would protect his family and arrest any suspects, even “if it were the Prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him,” in a comment meant to stress the power of the judiciary.
The statement caused uproar and calls to prosecute Zend for insulting religion.
In the aftermath of Zend’s interview, a statement from Al-Azhar cautioned against using the name of the prophet, even unintentionally. “A true Muslim is one whose heart is full of love for the prophet, peace be upon him, and who respects and glorifies him,” it read.
But other religious figures supported Zend, including renowned preacher Khaled al-Gendy. “There is a big difference between a slip of the tongue and deeply rooted doctrine. The companions of the prophet themselves made slip-ups, said words they didn’t mean, and asked for forgiveness,” he said.
Sheikh Ahmed Karima, professor of Fiqh at Al-Azhar University, made similar comments to Masr al-Arabia. “Zend is a faithful, genuine and good man and didn’t mean to insult religion,” he asserted.
“Using the metaphor of Prophet Mohamed, who is a historical figure that does not fall under the jurisdiction of Egyptian law, signals that we are living in a lawless state. I don’t know why Zend did not refer to Sisi, which would have been a more logical affirmation of the rule of law,” economist Hazem Hosny said.
Zend was forced to apologize. He stressed his unlimited love for the prophet, asserting that he is keen on implementing sharia, as long as it is free of exteremism.
The justice minister has made many more controversial statements in the past without incident, including calling for 10,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to be executed for every slain police or military officer.
In February, the State Council released a strongly-worded statement slamming Zend’s intervention in its work, after he queried the council’s amendments to a draft law, deeming it threatening to judicial independence.
Zend also had feuds with the Supreme Judicial Council. In August 2015, the council rejected nominations he sent for the position of prosecutor general. Nabil Sadek, the council’s most favored nominee, was later appointed as top prosecutor. Recommendations he made for the position of deputy minister for illicit gains were also rejected by the council.
Zend’s major dispute, however, was with the head of the Central Auditing Agency, Hesham Geneina. In July, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi passed a decree giving him the right to remove the heads of oversight and independent committees if they pose a proven threat to national security or fail to carry out their duties. In an interview with Mada Masr, Geneina said he was targeted under this law, which was orchestrated by Zend.
The rivalry with Zend has history. After his appointment as head of the auditing authority, Geneina requested that Zend provide access to the Judges Club accounts for auditing purposes. An exchange of lawsuits between the two resulted in the courts throwing out the case.
While he carefully avoided criticism of the president, Geneina said the mere appointment of Zend as justice minister was “very worrying,” and provided the security apparatus with a foothold in the judiciary.”
Zend also took on the media. In January, six journalists were referred to court and two others interrogated after publishing stories related to the alleged corruption of Zend and his family.
The journalists, many of who work for Al-Ahram newspaper, were accused of insulting the judiciary and state institutions, disseminating false news and threatening national peace.