Mubarak appoints a new chief of Al Azhar

Supporters of the cleric applaud his holistic education and exposure to global trends, but critics say he is not enough of a centrist.

Sheikh Ahmed el Tayeb, the new head of Al Azhar, at the funeral of Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi.
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CAIRO // Ahmed el Tayeb, the man President Hosni Mubarak has appointed as the new head of Al Azhar, is known for his moderate interpretation of Islam, is a regime loyalist and member of Mr Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party and takes a firm stance against the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr el Tayeb, 64, replacing Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, who died last week, is a former Grand Mufti of Egypt and is currently head of Al Azhar University. It is in the latter role that he has demonstrated his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in general. In 2006, for instance, he condemned Al Azhar University students belonging to the Brotherhood after they conducted a military-style parade inside the university's campus in which they wore black face masks.

Mr el Tayeb, likening the students to "Hamas, Hizbollah and the Republican Guard in Iran", vowed that the university would "never be an open field for the Brotherhood" to spread their political or religious agendas. More than 100 students were arrested at the time and senior leaders within the group were arrested shortly afterward and are currently serving up to seven years in prison, after they were sentenced by a military court in 2008.

Mr el Tayeb is a member of the NDP's policies committee, which is chaired by the president's son, Gamal, who is a seen by many as a potential presidential candidate. "I'm not going to talk about my political party membership, which concerns me only, and is nobody else's business," Mr el Tayeb was quoted as saying in the opposition daily Al Dostour yesterday. "I'm going to maintain the gains achieved by Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, and moderation and dialogue among civilisations."

Many among the opposition had called for the new Sheikh of Al Azhar to be elected by fellow scholars rather than be appointed by the president. The late Sheikh Tantawi, 81, who passed away while in Saudi Arabia on March 10, was also appointed and known for his loyalty to the president and the government. Mr Mubarak, 81, who is recovering from a gallbladder operation in Germany, issued a presidential decree of the appointment from Heidelberg University Hospital, apparently in an attempt to quell rumours and speculations that he is not in a good health.

Yesterday's papers showed pictures of Mr el Tayeb, who is currently visiting his hometown of Al Qurna, being congratulated by local residents after receiving the news of his appointment. Ululation and celebrations reportedly broke out in his hometown when the news was heard. On Friday Mr el Tayeb was quoted as saying by state media that he "highly appreciates the great trust" Mr Mubarak has bestowed on him.

Usually seen dressed in smart suits, the new Sheikh of Al Azhar also said he will start wearing traditional religious grab, such as long cloaks and a red and white head turban. A source close to Mr el Tayeb said that "the coming days will witness major change and upheavals in Al Azhar to regain its role and status in the Islamic world". It was actually Shiite Muslims, the Fatimids - who invaded Egypt from Tunisia in the 10th century - that founded Al Azhar.

The Al Azhar mosque was completed in 972, just three years after the invasion. Most scholars believe it was named after the Prophet Muhammad's daughter Fatima Al Zahraa. The mosque drew scholars from across the Muslim world - both Sunni and Shiite - and grew into a Sunni university. Its role is to propagate Islamic teachings and culture around the world. Mr el Tayeb was Egypt's grand mufti for a short stint between 2002 and 2003. He is considered to be one of the most moderate and enlightened Sunni clerics in Egypt.

He speaks English and French fluently and has a PhD in Islamic philosophy from France's Sorbonne University. Born in 1946, Mr el Tayeb joined an Al Azhar affiliated school at the age of 10, with a career spanning 40 years at the institution. He became a faculty member at Al Azhar University before becoming dean of the philosophy department. He is an expert on religious philosophy and issues of faith, and has written books about science, Marxism, Islamic philosophy and Islamic culture.

Mr el Tayeb heads the Committee of Religions Dialogue and is a member of Al Azhar Research Centre, the highest scholars' association within Al Azhar. He has outwardly criticised hardline Islamists, saying the focus on rituals and outward manifestations of piety - such as Islamic garb and long beards - comes at the expense of true spiritual development. He angered radical Islamists for once telling an Islamic conference that "the logic of things is change" and again when he said it permissible for Muslims to sell alcohol to non-Muslims abroad in non-Muslim countries.

The sheikh also advises the state on religious matters. He supported late Sheikh Tantawi in his last battle to ban the niqab, or face veil, inside Al Azhar girls institution. He is against wearing the niqab in general and considers it alien to Islamic teaching. Al Azhar, which runs schools, universities and other educational institutions across Egypt and sends scholars to teach in countries across the Muslim world, receives most of its funding from the state.

Mr el Tayeb's appointment received a mixed reaction. Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Egypt's current Grand Mufti, issued a statement congratulating him, saying that choosing him was "a wise decision". Mr Gomaa was reported to have been one of the candidates of the post, which usually goes to Muftis. but he lacks a strong Al Azhar background. The Muslim Brotherhood's leader, Mohammed Badie, issued a statement congratulating Mr el Tayeb.

But Brotherhood lawmaker Sheikh Sayed Askar, also an Azharite, accused the government of promoting one of its own at the expense of people better suited to the post. "The Egyptian regime has no shame, it looks for its supporters to reward them with certain posts, ignoring those who really deserve them, as the regime only cares about its interests, not that of the citizens or the institutions," he said.

nmagd@the * With additional reporting by the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse