A statement entitled "the Islamic jurist who tortured us" has been published on the front page of an Egyptian government magazine, signalling a confrontation between the Egyptian presidency and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed El-Tayeb.
Simultaneously, other headlines included "The Reformer" and "Islamic jurisprudence according to the president's insights," in reference to the support of some media outlets for President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi's attacks on religious discourse in Egypt.
Al-Sisi regularly accuses Al-Azhar – a prestigious university in the Egyptian capital Cairo and the largest religious institution in the Islamic world – of spreading extremism and misinterpreting the fundamentals of Islam. This conflict has been revealed to the public on numerous occasions since Al-Sisi first lamented "how exhausting to deal with you?" in the course of an improvised speech directed at El-Tayeb last year.
Another public confrontation took place during a ceremony organised by the Ministry of Awqaf – which is in charge of religious endowments – to celebrate the birthday of Prophet Muhammad several days ago.
In this speech, El-Tayeb called for the need to preserve the purified Sunnah and not to allow some trends to draw the Egyptian people away from Islam. However, El-Tayeb's words were not met with acceptance from Al-Sisi, who responded to the Grand Imam saying: "Do you think that the request to employ the Holy Quran as the sole source of Sharia is a greater insult than misunderstanding our religion and breeding extremist ideologies?"
The repercussions of this confrontation continued to emerge after the ceremony ended, extending to the prohibition of official statements issued by Al-Azhar and an explicit media attack on the institution and its Grand Imam.
Additionally, Egyptian security services were instructed to ignore statements and events held by Al-Azhar scholars and even delete news published by newspapers and news websites pertaining to their ideas.
According to media reports, the Egyptian presidency issued instructions prohibiting the publication of the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar's statement, in which Al-Azhar sheikhs rejected calls for equality in inheritance between men and women.
Some news websites were forced to delete the Supreme Council's statement just hours after its publication, after being informed of the presidential instructions.
Echoes of the dispute between Al-Sisi and El-Tayeb reached the south of Egypt, the Grand Imam's birthplace, which led to a mass demonstration in the city of Kurna, west of Luxor.
A few days ago, the Support for Al-Azhar and Tribes of Upper Egypt coalitions called for Friday prayers to be held in El-Tayeb square to confront the media attack on the institution. The demonstration was deliberately ignored by official media outlets.
In what was considered an implicit response to the reform claims made by Al-Sisi, El-Tayeb published an article entitled: "Yes to reform, no to distortion" in the Voice of Al-Azhar magazine. The Grand Imam wrote: "Religious reform is an undisputable necessity for all Muslims at all times and places. It is a very obvious fact for the Islamic text, law, and history."
El-Tayeb added: "The kind of religious reform expected by Muslims should basically go in accordance with the Holy Quran and Sunnah. Similarly, such reform should be in harmony with the era's spirit and treasures of Islamic heritage afterward, away from the abolition and distortion of the role of religion. Let it be a reform and not a misinterpretation."
However, the Egyptian Minister of Awqaf Mohammed Mukhtar Jumaa tried to reach a compromise between the two parties. He likewise issued a statement in which he insisted on the "authenticity of Sunnah," demanding all parties "to carry on the march of diligence and reform in order to diminish extremist thought and confront the forces of evil and darkness".
Jumaa pointed out that: "There is no disagreement over the validity of authentic texts, but the source of animosity resides in the clash with ignorant people who do not differentiate between the fixed text and the changing human thought resulting from interpreting the text itself. We believe that the understanding and application of the text in terms of changes and developments cannot amount to the holiness of the Quran or a sacred text."
This tension between Al-Sisi and El-Tayeb is not recent, but rather extends to other issues including oral divorce, the reform of religious discourse, excommunicating Daesh, unified sermon, the curricula and laws of Al-Azhar and the marriage of minors. Such confrontations indicate Al-Sisi's attempt to control Al-Azhar scholars and subjugate the religious establishment to his influence.
But the secret behind the severity of the conflict lies in El-Tayeb's televised announcement that he is innocent of the bloodshed that accompanied the massacres committed against the supporters of Egypt's first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, during the Rabaa and Al-Nahdah square sit-ins on 14 August 2013. His announcement was made before the Grand Imam retreated from the public scene for days as an expression of his rejection of the violent methods used to end the sit-ins by force.
El-Tayeb, who was one of the most prominent supporters of the coup of 3 July 2013, is currently receiving many signs of presidential dissatisfaction with his performance. Most importantly, there are explicit hints that El-Tayeb risks being marginalized or perhaps fired.
According to the Al-Azhar Law passed in January 2012 – which regulated the election process of the Grand Imam and the end of his service by the age of 80 – the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar acquires immunity in his position, making it impossible to depose him. The law also set a limit of nine years' service, before the Imam can retire at 80 years old.