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Egypt sees al-Azhar as key to Africa

Egypt is seeking to reinvigorate its role on the African continent and restore its influence through missions by al-Azhar clerics.
Egyptian Sunni Muslim clerics  attend a conference on extremism at Al-Azhar in Cairo on December 3, 2014. Al-Azhar, one of the most prestigious centres of Sunni Muslim learning, is holding a two-day conference on "Fighting Extremism and Terrorism."AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO — Egypt rejoined the African Union on June 17, 2014, and since that time, the administration of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been trying to expand its regional role in Africa through a stronger foreign policy and hopes to use the soft power of religion to reassert Egypt’s cultural influence in African societies. The Foreign Ministry has called on al-Azhar, the thousand-year-old university and center of Sunni religious thought, for assistance.

A Foreign Ministry source specializing in African affairs told Al-Monitor, “There is a strategy to mainly rely on religious institutions, such as al-Azhar and the church, to spread culture and influence in small communities in African countries.” Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said, “There are significant challenges to restoring al-Azhar’s power and reforming its foreign policy, especially in Africa, after al-Azhar missions that were sent to African countries many years ago failed to achieve their goal. In fact, they became a burden to Egyptian foreign policy … There are still lengthy consultations between the Foreign Ministry and al-Azhar to activate the role of al-Azhar’s missions in Africa for the benefit of Egyptian interests and to spread moderate Islam at a time when radical and terrorist thought controls several parts of the continent, threatening Egypt’s security.”

After the liberation of a number of African countries from colonial domination in the 1950s, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser sent al-Azhar clerics on missions to African states to strengthen relations. In turn, al-Azhar received several student missions from African countries to study the institution's version of moderate Islam. Egyptian Islamic centers were established in Somalia, Tanzania, Eritrea and Uganda.

According to statistics from al-Azhar, 65% of its foreign students are Africans who have come to study religion and jurisprudence. Also, 75% of al-Azhar's envoys to the world remain on the African continent. Despite ambitious plans for al-Azhar to help spread its cultural influence among African societies for Egypt’s benefit, a number of challenges stand in the way of achieving this goal, namely, the institution’s inability to select suitable envoys.

Al-Monitor visited the Egyptian Islamic Center in Tanzania and also met with a number of al-Azhar envoys in Uganda, Kenya, Eritrea and South Africa. One notable problem for the clerics was their inability to speak the native languages, which prevents them from mixing easily with the local communities.

A number of the al-Azhar clerics told Al-Monitor that they were not particularly interested in spreading culture. They pointed to the difficult economic situation in Egypt, and their inability to make ends meet on the low pay of al-Azhar clerics in Egypt, so they had decided to seek a “foreign exchange” mission because salaries for such missions are higher. Another problem of the African missions involves how the envoys are selected. Age and seniority are given preference, without regard to competence. Those selected are not trained to work with non-Arab cultures. They are also burdened with a plethora of travel-related security directives.

The head of the Popular Movement for the Independence of al-Azhar, Abdul Ghani Hindi, told Al-Monitor, “Al-Azhar no longer has a clear project for dealing with the Africa file. Al-Azhar’s role in Africa needs to be reconsidered regarding the development and restructuring of al-Azhar’s role in general after more than 40 years of neglect and accumulated problems. Al-Azhar’s envoys should focus first on dealing with social issues in African societies and promote coexistence and dialogue, rather than making students memorize Quranic texts without understanding them.”

Amani Tawil, head of the Africa Studies Group at the al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “We can’t deny al-Azhar’s powerful cultural role after the end of colonialism in Africa. But now, it shows weakness and a loss of power in selecting competent personnel to send on foreign missions.”

She said that one cannot count on the status quo or assume that al-Azhar, in its current state, can be an influential force for Egypt in Africa. “Al-Azhar must be part of a comprehensive vision for Egypt’s soft power in Africa, which has become an open arena for international and regional powers that may negatively affect Egyptian interests.”

Despite the issue being raised of developing and activating the role of al-Azhar envoys in Africa after the January 25 Revolution, and despite Cairo asserting its interest in Africa over the last four years, it remains only talk in official circles. No clear action plan has been drafted to revise Egyptian policies toward Africa, especially al-Azhar’s role amid the spread of radical Islamic thought and rise of such jihadist groups as al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, which are on the minds of many young Africans.

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