Why Al-Azhar sides with Sisi against protests

Al-Azhar has condemned the recent anti-government protests in Egypt, raising questions on whether it was under pressure to issue a statement in support of the state.

al-monitor An Egyptian flag flutters over Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 24, 2016, on the eve of the anniversary of the 2011 uprising.  Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images.

Oct 4, 2020

CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has warned against attempts to “destroy Egypt” following recent rare anti-government protests. 

Speaking at the Sept. 27 inauguration of an oil refining complex in the Mostorod region of the Qalyubia governorate, Sisi said there are individuals exploiting the poverty and financial difficulties that citizens are suffering to convince them that they are enduring unfair treatment, and to question the achievements of the state. 

Sisi tried to convince Egyptians that chaos and instability resulting from demonstrations would impede development and prosperity in society. He blamed the pause in development projects on the January 25 Revolution, and said, “There are projects that have stopped and collapsed as a result of the events of 2011 and the state of instability.”

Sisi’s attempts to calm public opinion came after Egypt witnessed a wave of demonstrations as Egyptians took to the streets of several villages and cities starting Sept. 20 to demand better living conditions in response to a call launched Sept. 5 by the fugitive Mohamed Ali, a construction contractor residing in Spain.

The protests, which lasted for several days, came after government decisions to demolish buildings that violate construction requirements. They also protested against the prices of many services, including the subway and electricity.

Demonstrators tore down photos of Sisi to express their anger. In the city of Bani Mazar in Mina governorate in Upper Egypt, demonstrators took down a banner for Sisi hanging on the facade of a building and then proceeded to tear it up. Children in the village of Monshaat Al Amari in Luxor set an image of Sisi ablaze.

According to a joint statement issued Sept. 25 by three human rights organizations — Justice for Human Rights, the Salam International Organization for the Protection of Human Rights and El-Shehab for Human Rights  — 400 people were arrested during the demonstrations. 

On Sept. 27, the Public Prosecutor ordered the release of 68 children arrested for their participation in the demonstrations after their parents pledged to prohibit them from attending such acts in the future.

In an attempt to calm public opinion, Sisi announced Sept. 27 during the opening of a refinery project in Mostorod a package of new decisions to support citizens.

This included pumping 1 billion Egyptian pounds ($63.4 million) annually for a period of five years to develop the Mostorod region and continuing to offer a grant to irregular workers until the end of the year. He also asked the government to swiftly complete the new construction requirements. 

“Don’t you think that we will leave people without shelter. Residents of houses destroyed will be moved to decent places and compensated,” Sisi said.

The protests prompted Al-Azhar to issue a statement Sept. 26 in which it attacked the demonstrators and called on the people to stand united behind their political leadership against any calls to disturb public order.

 Al-Azhar said in its statement, “Al-Azhar Al-Sharif has closely followed the destructive movements aimed at destabilizing and disturbing public order, which seek to undermine the security of our dear Egypt, spread chaos and disrupt the climate of development and investment.”

It added, “The various development projects that are being accomplished on the ground are a clear indication that Egypt is moving in the right direction, and this shall come to fruition in the near future, God willing, on all levels.”

This statement raised many questions about Al-Azhar’s actual position on the demonstrations and whether it was placed under pressure to issue a statement in support of the state, especially considering that its relations with the regime are witnessing noticeable tension and  fundamental differences on many issues.

Amr al-Shobaki, the deputy head of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor that people in the know on Al-Azhar’s relationship with the state can see that Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb is not affiliated with anyone, does not take dictates from anyone and enjoys complete independence from state institutions.

“We have never seen during the era of Ahmed Al-Tayeb that Al-Azhar changed its beliefs or ideas. If anything, it has entered into many battles with the state in defense of its ideas and approaches,” Shobaki said.

He added, “The latest spate came when parliament tried to pass several laws that would undermine the independence of Al-Azhar. Al-Azhar strongly refused these as its sheikh asked parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal to attend the plenary session before the final vote in a bid to explain the reasons behind Al-Azhar's objection thereto.”

On Aug 23, Tayeb announced a strong rejection of a draft law to reorganize Dar al-Ifta, an Al-Azhar-affiliated institution responsible for issuing religious guidelines. He also demanded that he be able to attend parliamentary discussion on the proposal. The legislature subsequently withdrew the bill instead.

Shobaki said Al-Azhar is convinced that the achievements the country has witnessed during the past six years are proof that the state is moving in the right direction and that economic reforms were necessary to grease the economic wheels.

Shobaki said the demonstrations came in response to the regime’s economic policies. “For the first time since Sisi took office, people took to the streets in the countryside, in marginalized areas, in the outskirts of the governorates of the republic and in places affected by the [crackdown] on construction violations. This shows that these demonstrations are sincerely calling for better conditions and tangible reforms.”

Shobaki added, “Although the demonstrations were limited, they conveyed a message to the regime whereby change should be made, and the needs of these groups should be met.”

Khaled Okasha, director general of the Egyptian Center for Thought and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor that the Muslim Brotherhood and those with foreign agendas are exploiting the needs of citizens and the difficult economic decisions taken by the government in order to create chaos and bring down the state. 

He indicated that Egyptians know full well the size of the infrastructure development and achievements made, but they suffer from the repercussions of the state’s economic decisions such as the liberalization of the exchange rate, the reduction in energy subsidies and more recently the demolition of buildings that violated construction codes.

On Nov. 3, 2016, the Central Bank of Egypt announced the liberalization of the exchange rate and allowed supply and demand to determine the value of the Egyptian pound, which led to an increase in the prices of basic goods and services.

On Nov. 26, 2019, Sisi said during the inauguration of a number of national projects in Port Said governorate that over the previous four years, the government spent more than $200 billion on development sectors that include road networks, bridges and other infrastructure.

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