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Rift widens between Egyptian president, Al-Azhar

Tensions have emerged in the relationship between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Al-Azhar, with the former promoting reform that the latter finds unacceptable, rejecting governmental influence on religion.

When Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then defense minister, gave a televised speech on July 3, 2013, announcing that President Mohammed Morsi had just been overthrown, he was flanked by Egypt’s top religious leaders, Pope Tawadros, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church, and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar. Tayeb, who had earlier called on Morsi  — the country’s first democratically elected president — to step down to end the bloodshed, threw his weight behind the military man who helped rid Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, since designated by the country as a “terrorist group.”

Now, nearly four years later, cracks have appeared in the alliance between Sisi (himself a devout Muslim), who became president in 2014, and Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s oldest seat of learning. Al-Azhar has resisted repeated appeals by Sisi to “renew Islamic discourse” and “modernize the faith.” Any doubts skeptics might have had about Tayeb and Sisi not seeing eye to eye in regard to "modernizing Islam” vanished when the president publicly took a jab at the grand imam last month, telling him, “You wear me out.” While the remark was made jokingly, it signaled underlying tensions in their relationship, suggesting Sisi’s patience with Al-Azhar’s intransigence on reforms may be wearing thin.

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