Freie Universität Berlin
The Status of Freedom of Expression
and Al-Azhar in Post-Revolutionary Egypt.
Nehad M. M. Almadhoun
To be submitted on
31st January 2018
importance of religion in forming the Egyptian identity as well as the
substantial changes that the political Islam has undergone since the fall of
Mubarak’s regime, Al-Azhar is expected to have great role in shaping the
present and the future of the Egyptian political as well as the social scene,
including the status of the human rights and the democratic change. In 2011 and
2012, Al-Azhar released two documents in support of establishing a state based
on human rights and democratic principles. Interestingly, Al-Azhar in these
documents declares its support to freedom of expression calling it “the
mother of all freedoms”. Though the picture in Egypt does not seem so
bright in terms of human rights in general and freedom of expression in
particular, the motives and the reasons that were behind this change in
Al-Azhar’s ideological orientation right after the revolution poses a lot of
questions and speculations.
2011 Egyptian revolution formed a significant historical juncture in the modern
Egyptian history. Eighteen days of constant public demonstrations succeeded in
overthrowing Mubarak’s regime ending more than 30 years of his rule to Egypt. While the participants in these protests,
regardless of their backgrounds, called for the establishment of a new
political system based on democratic and human rights values, the developments
to follow have been at variance with what the protestors called for.
While The years after the uprising witnessed various
political vicissitudes in the Egyptian arena, some researchers believe that a
real change in the stat’s institutions never occurred1.
However, the emergence of al-Azhar, as a prominent and indispensable player
within the political and social life after the Egyptian revolution, is
remarkably evident. Al-Azhar managed to restore its Council of Senior Scholars
in 2012, a year after the revolution, which was dissolved in 1961 by the
socialist president Gamal Abdel Nasser2.
revolution, an exceptional step taken by al-Azhar towards the recognition of
the basic democratic and humanitarian values. on 19th June 2011, the leading religious state’s
institution issued a document declaring its support to establishing a modern democratic
state based on human rights3.
On 8th January 2012, Al-Azhar released its statement on Basic
Freedoms. The importance of these two documents is not only due to the significant
period during which they were published but also due to the change in the
vocabulary and the concepts used in the statements. Interestingly, Al-Azhar’s
documents on basic rights declares its support to Freedom of expression and
literary freedom without connecting that to Sharia’ law4.
is crucial in defining the various aspects of Egypt, the scholarships that have
discussed its role, its influence, its history and its ideology are numerous.
However, not many studies have been written to discuss its influence on the
Egyptian life after the evolution, let alone its impact on the status of
freedom of expression and the intellectual freedom in post-revolutionary Egypt.
On the other hand, Al-Azhar declaration on the Future of Egypt (2011) and the
Statement of Al-Azhar on the Basic freedoms (2012) have been not discussed and
investigated deeply in connection with the political and social vicissitudes
that took place in Egypt since the overthrowing of the old regime.
The purpose of
this study is to investigate the increasing power of al-Azhar and its impact on the status of freedom of expression in
Post-revolutionary Egypt. In addition to that, the research will discuss these
developments in the Egyptian scene in light of the Al-Azhar’s declaration on the future of Egypt (2011) as well as Al-Azhar
Statement on Basic Freedoms (2012). The study will focus on the years between
2011 to 2017.
In order to
answer that I will try investigating the following questions:
How can the relationship between al-Azhar and the military government be
perceived? And how would that effect on the case of freedom of expression in
In light of the circumstances in which al-Azhar issued its document of
2011 and its statement on Basic freedoms (2012), to what extent the
socio-political and economic circumstances would affect al-Azhar’s attitude
towards human rights in general and the right to free expression in particular?
How does al-Azhar understand the religious reformation process? and how
has it reacted so far towards the attempts that aim at rereading the religious
heritage and reinterpreting it?
The conservatives and the reformists’ attitudes inside the institution
and how would the outcome would shape the relationship between al-Azhar and the
educated elite on one hand, and al-Azhar and the state on the other?
What are the differences and the similarities between al-Azhar’s
attitude towards intellectuals before and after the revolution?
The study will be interpretive; thus, I suggest that most of the methods
will be qualitative. As the research will be wide-ranging analysis, several
methods will be used in gathering information process. Quantitative methods
also might be used as well.
In order to better understand the political as well as the religious
role of al-Azhar in Egypt after the 25th January revolution, an
in-depth reading of the relevant literature will be necessary. That includes
the publications, commentaries, and declarations produced by the main figures of
al-Azhar during the period that starts from 2011 to 2017. Besides, the interviews
that were made with the key characters of al-Azhar, as well as the magazine and
newspaper’s articles that written in the main Egyptian magazines and newspapers
about this institution, will be analyzed.Where possible I will try to contact
some characters inside al-Azhar to ask them about their views about the role of
their institution and its position in today’s Egyptian arena.
Contacting human rights organizations to get information about the
cases of violations of basic human rights, in this study the concentration will
be on freedom of expression’s cases. Quantitative comparisons are needed to
discern the violations that were based on political or religious reasons. Also,
Charts are needed to compare the numbers of abuses over years.
To apprehend the intellectual conflicts inside al-Azhar between the
reformists and the conservatives, I will need to resort to qualitative methods.
An in-depth reading will be made to relevant literature including writings of
the leading researchers in the field. The writings, the publications and the
declarations of al-Azhar prominent leaders from the different schools and
thoughts will be analyzed. The important magazines and newspapers in Egypt,
whether they belong to the state, al-Azhar or the opposition will be reviewed.
Qualitative Semi-structured interviews will be conducted, if possible,
with key characters in al-Azhar and experts about al-Azhar institution and its
The material sources will be both primary as well as secondary
sources. While primary sources include the writings of the current main
scholars of Al-Azhar, secondary sources will be the main studies that were
written about Al-Azhar, especially after the revolution of Arab Spring.
The central position that al-Azhar played in the Islamic world in
general and, in the Egyptian arena in particular, whether historically or at
our present days, attracted numerous researchers for decades. An extensive
literature has been written to discuss its religious, political, social and
intellectual contributions over centuries. Most of these studies discussed
al-Azhar before the revolution of 25th January 2011, and little has
been written so far about this leading institution after this historical
The entangled relationship between al-Azhar and the subsequent
political rulers has gained a great attention. Barry Rubin (1990) states that
the connection between the state and Al-Azhar led to the decrease of respect
for this institution5. While Rubin thinks that
the difference between the official Islam and the fundamentalists is in the
graduality of the application of sharia6′, he believes that most of
Egyptians will follow the Ulama way of Islam even though they criticise it7.
As Burry Rubin (1990), Asef Bayat (2007) refers to the role played by
al-Azhar in the late 1980s to support the government against the Islamists. However,
the political Islamist movement “Muslim
Brotherhood” managed to penetrate
the State’s institutions including al-Azhar itself8. While Bayat (2007) points
out at the penetration of al-Azhar by Muslim Brotherhood, other researchers
assert that it was al-Azhar what gave rise to the political Islam in our modern
time. Machteld Zee(2016) indicates to the strong connection between Mohamed
Abdou and Mu?ammad
Raš?d ibn ?Al? Ri??, whom she describes as Salafists.
She states that this relationship between those two prominent scholars is of
great significance since Ri?? was going to be the mentor of Hasan al-Bann?, the
founder of Muslim Brotherhood9.
On the same line, Moataz El Fegiery (2016)
discusses the harmony and the agreement that exist between al-Azhar and the
Muslim Brotherhood in terms of human rights, especially the right to free
expression and the rights of minorities. The writer reveals that both sides
contributed in curtailing freedom of expression and the artistry work in Egypt10.
Al-Azhar’s attitude during and after the Egyptian revolution has been
analyzed by many researchers in the field. These analytical readings varied
between those who think that al-Azhar achieved a notable change in its traditional
views, others think that the documents al-Azhar issued in 2011 and 2012 in
support of Arab Spring revolutions were not sufficient and they reflected
ambiguity that could be used against freedoms in general.
On the contrary of Moataz El Fegiery (2016) , who thinks that Al-Azhar’s
document is ambiguous in terms of establishing a democratic state and
respecting human rights, Assem Hefny (2016) states that by issuing its document
on the future of Egypt, al-Azhar represents a significant development
concerning its religious and politically conservative views, especially if we
compare it to its constitutional visions which was issued in 1979.11 On his explanation of some ambiguous points
related to the constitution of November 2012, Abdullahi
Ahmed An- na’im refers to Art. 4, which gives the right to
al-Azhar to provide consultations concerning Sharia’ laws., as being incitement
to corruption, especially Al-Azhar scholars were not elected12.
The increase of Al-Azhar’s power encouraged this institution to
compete with the state over the religious authority (Karim El Taki2018)13. Al-Azhar’s increasing
hegemony in post-revolutionary Egypt is due to the equivocal relationship between
religion and state, as Nathan J. Brown (2011) says. The researcher notes that
nobody speaks about the separation between the religious authority and the
political authority. Instead, the argument between almost all the players
within the political arena is about how they should interact.14.
In his Article, Ahmed Morsy (2018) comments on
al-Azhar’s declaration on the future of Egypt, especially its treatment to
state religion relationship. The writer presents the various reactions towards
this document. While Muslim Brotherhood and even some non-Islamists writers
welcomed this step, others expressed their suspicious due to what they called
the ambiguous nature of the issued document15.
To what extent have the social and the
political atmosphere an effect on Al-Azhar attitude? Actually, some studies
have illuminated this point. Hefny (2016) clarifies that the change that the
document of al-Azhar shows is because the desire of al-Azhar to “keep pace
with” the new political and social developments that produced by the revolution
so as not to lose its position in the new changing environment16. Margot
Badran (1995) mentions that during the 1930s, when the veiling habit was
dying, that al-Azhar issued Fatwa about the unnecessity of veiling for Hanafi
and Maliki schools17.
No doubt that Al-Azhar has a central role in
Egypt today, and the studies that try to explore this significant institution
will continue. However, the research that I intend to conduct will add a new
reading concerning it and its role in post-revolutionary Egypt.
Abdullahi Ahmed An- na’im , The
Legitimacy of Constitution- Making Processes in the Arab World An Islamic
Perspective HUMAN RIGHTS, AND ISLAM AFTER THE ARAB SPRING, Edited by Rainer
Grote and Tilmann J. Röder, Oxford University Press 2016
al-Azhar Declaration on the
Future of Egypt, 2011
Asef Bayat, Revolutions without revolutionaries
Bayat, Asef, Making Islam Democratic, Stanford University press,
El Fegiery, Moataz, Islamic Law
and Human Rights: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Cambridge Scholars
El Taki, Karim, Rivalry for Religious Dominance in Egypt, Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace.2016
HEFNY, ASSEM, Religious Authorities and Constitutional Reform The Case of Al- Azhar in Egypt,
CONSTITUTIONALISM, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND ISLAM AFTER THE ARAB SPRING, Edited by
Rainer Grote and Tilmann J. Röder, Oxford University Press 2016
Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam, and Nation, GENDER AND THE MAKING OF
MODERN EGYPT, Princeton University Press, 1995
Morsy, Ahmed, An Independent Voice for Egypt’s al-Azhar? – Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace
Nathan J. Brown, Post-Revolutionary al-Azhar, Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace. 2011
Rubin, Barry, Islamic Fundamentalism in Egyptian Politics, Library of
Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data ,1990
Zee, Machteld, Choosing Sharia’, Multiculturalism, Islamic
Fundamentalism and Sharia Councils, Eleven International Publishing, 2016
Asef Bayat, Revolutions without revolutionaries, p. 153.
2 HEFNY, ASSEM, Religious Authorities and Constitutional
Reform The Case of Al- Azhar in Egypt, CONSTITUTIONALISM,
HUMAN RIGHTS, AND ISLAM AFTER THE ARAB SPRING, Edited by Rainer Grote and
Tilmann J. Röder, Oxford University Press 2016. P. 90.
al-Azhar Declaration on the Future of Egypt, 2011, P. 5.
ASSEM, Religious Authorities and Constitutional Reform The Case of Al- Azhar in Egypt,
CONSTITUTIONALISM, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND ISLAM AFTER THE ARAB SPRING, Edited by
Rainer Grote and Tilmann J. Röder, Oxford University Press 2016. P. 100.
Rubin, Barry, Islamic Fundamentalism in Egyptian Politics, Library of Congress
6 Ibid., p82.
Bayat, Asef, Making Islam Democratic, Stanford University press, California,
2007, P. 137, P. 143.
Zee, Machteld, Choosing Sharia’, Multiculturalism, Islamic Fundamentalism and
Sharia Councils, Eleven International Publishing, 2016, P. 59-60.
Fegiery, Moataz, Islamic Law and Human
Rights: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Cambridge Scholars Publishing,
2016. P. 108
11HEFNY, ASSEM, Religious Authorities and Constitutional
Reform The Case of Al- Azhar in Egypt, CONSTITUTIONALISM, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND ISLAM AFTER THE ARAB
SPRING, Edited by Rainer Grote and Tilmann J. Röder, Oxford University Press
2016. P. 89-106.
Ahmed An- na’im , The Legitimacy of
Constitution- Making Processes in the Arab World An Islamic Perspective HUMAN
RIGHTS, AND ISLAM AFTER THE ARAB SPRING, Edited by Rainer Grote and Tilmann J.
Röder, Oxford University Press 2016. P. 39
Taki, Karim, Rivalry for Religious Dominance in Egypt, Carnegie Endowment for
J. Brown, Post-Revolutionary al-Azhar, Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace. 2011, P. 4.
Ahmed, An Independent Voice for Egypt’s al-Azhar? – Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, P. 2018.
ASSEM, Religious Authorities and Constitutional Reform The Case of Al- Azhar in Egypt CONSTITUTIONALISM,
HUMAN RIGHTS, AND ISLAM AFTER THE ARAB SPRING, Edited by Rainer Grote and
Tilmann J. Röder, Oxford University Press 2016. P. 102.
Badran, Feminists, Islam, and Nation, GENDER AND THE MAKING OF MODERN EGYPT, Princeton
University Press, 1995. P. 110