Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 11/2011

Post-Revolutionary Al-Azhar

Nathan J. Brown

October 2011

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


All political forces in Egypt seem to agree: The country’s premier religious institution, al-Azhar, must be made more independent from the regime. But that agreement is deeply misleading; it masks a struggle within al-Azhar and among leading political forces over its role in Egyptian society. Part mosque, part university, part center of religious research and knowledge, al-Azhar is perhaps the central—and certainly the most prestigious—element in the state–religion complex in Egypt. Egypt has a very substantial bureaucratic apparatus intertwining religion and state. Nobody in Egypt is arguing for a separation of religion and state; the dispute is over the terms and ways in which they will interact. All within al-Azhar want it to become more authoritative, respected, and autonomous, but there are sharp differences on how to accomplish that and how much it should control. A similar debate is taking place outside al-Azhar, where the call to make the institution more autonomous is broadly voiced but for very different reasons. The most likely outcome of this post-revolutionary struggle is a religiously influenced state, but not an Iranian-style theocracy. Contrasting visions of what that means are leading to a political battle, fought not on the plane of abstract philosophical argument but on the very prosaic ground of legal drafting. That process has already begun, and it will be placed forcefully on the agenda of the new parliament.