Over the past month, debate in Egypt has centered around a legislative initiative designed to reorganize the way the country’s religious establishment is governed.

At first glance, the initiative appeared designed to place the top leadership of Al-Azhar, the sprawling research and educational state institution that looms over the religious field in Egypt, under greater presidential oversight, much as was done with top judicial positions last month. However, the effort was actually more audacious, designed not just to change things at Al-Azhar’s senior levels, but to reach deep into its functioning.

Its audacity was its own undoing, at least for now. Al-Azhar succeeded in rallying its supporters, wrapping itself in a mixture of religious authority and Egyptian pride, and portraying itself as an institution under unjustified assault. It was an increasingly rare example of an Egyptian political actor mobilizing a constituency on its own behalf. Yet there are signs that the effort to restructure Al-Azhar, though tabled, had real effects. Egypt’s religious leadership has been treading more carefully and the political leadership has been more successful in exploiting some divisions in the religious sector.

A POLITICAL CONTEST STRETCHING BACK DECADES

The political contest over governing Al-Azhar stretches back decades. With a university, a nationwide network of elementary and secondary schools, research institutions, and fatwa-giving bodies, Al-Azhar shapes how Islam is taught in Egypt. The institution also sees itself as a preeminent global voice for Sunni Islam. Some Islamic institutions in Egypt lie outside its orbit. The Ministry of Religious Affairs oversees mosques and religious endowments and is part of the executive branch. Dar al-Ifta, responsible for issuing fatwas for state bodies, is independent though its head is currently appointed by Al-Azhar. However, Al-Azhar’s prestige is greater, not only because of its international standing but also because it has some autonomy from the rest of the state.

That autonomy, never unlimited, was diminished in the 1960s as Egypt’s authoritarian presidency sought to bring Al-Azhar under greater control. But in January 2012, the country’s military rulers in the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces—which then enjoyed presidential authority in the wake of Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow the previous year—suddenly issued a new law by decree that recreated a body that had been disbanded in the 1960s. This was the Body of Senior Scholars, and its role was to oversee Al-Azhar. The current grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib, was to name the first members of the body, after which it would fill any vacancies from within in its own ranks. The Body of Senior Scholars would also name the grand imam and the head of Dar al-Ifta, both of whom were previously appointed by the Egyptian president. Under the 2012 amendments, the grand imam retained the power to choose the president of Al-Azhar University, or, more precisely, to send choices to Egypt’s president, whose appointment power would be reduced to a mere formality.

The military’s motives seemed clear. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies were about to take up a parliamentary majority hours after the decree was issued, so Al-Azhar was set free in order to prevent the Islamist movement from remaking the institution in its own image. The Brotherhood was thus in the odd position of decrying a reform for which it had long called—and it was unsuccessful, with state Islam (represented by Al-Azhar) maintaining its independence until the Islamists were tossed out of office. The grand imam made a series of initial appointments to the Body of Senior Scholars, filling over half the seats. However, subsequently he was so careful in his appointments that members have actually been dying more rapidly than they are being replaced. But the body, though incomplete in its membership, has still allowed the grand imam to wrap himself in the collective wisdom of learned scholars when necessary.

So when President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi took office in 2014, he found himself facing the same fences around religion that had been built to keep out his bearded predecessor. And he sought to breach them—first by lecturing Al-Azhar’s leaders on curricular issues, then by hectoring them on divorce law.

It is that context that best explains the most recent legislative proposal. Technically, the draft was the initiative of Muhammad Abu Hamed, a Sisi supporter in the Egyptian parliament. In that sense, it reflects a new trend in Egyptian legislation, in which controversial and authoritarian proposals are presented as coming from parliament rather than the presidency and security bodies (the more likely real initiators). This keeps the regime’s fingerprints off of legislation and also avoids much involvement by concerned ministries, the cabinet, and other state bodies. The recent changes in organizing the judiciary—which gave Egypt’s president discretion over senior judicial appointments—was rushed through using a similar opaque process. Earlier, a law on nongovernmental organizations was also rewritten by parliament, with widespread speculation that parliamentary quills were guided by security bodies.

WHAT THE DRAFT LAW WOULD HAVE DONE

If the process of legislation in Egypt is Byzantine, the text of the law on Al-Azhar was all too clear. The most attention-getting changes in the draft were those that would have directly affected the grand imam. The legislation would have imposed a twelve-year limit on his tenure. It proposed a mechanism to allow a committee to investigate the grand imam if he was accused of misconduct and introduced a process to remove him. It also broadened the way he was selected. He would be chosen not only by the Body of Senior Scholars, but also by the members of the Islamic Research Academy, another body within Al-Azhar. Finally, the Body of Senior Scholars would no longer be self-perpetuating or restricted to religious scholars. It would also include some members with secular expertise (such as those familiar with psychology) and include individuals designated by Egyptian ministries and councils.

The new legislation would also have made changes to the role and composition of the Supreme Council of Al-Azhar, a structure primarily responsible for administrative matters, to include not merely religious officials and representatives of various concerned ministries, but also five individuals appointed by the president. The Supreme Council, under the 2012 amendments, is mainly responsible for determining Al-Azhar’s budget. The 2017 draft legislation would have expanded this role, putting the council in charge of establishing the Islamic framework within which Al-Azhar would carry out its religious teachings. Consequently, the Supreme Council would have been responsible for reforming religious discourse in the way for which Sisi has been pushing.

The draft would also have gone deeper into the structure of the institution. Currently, Al-Azhar University has a collection of colleges, both religious and not, that coordinate with the Ministry of Education but also have autonomy and answer to a president appointed by the grand imam. However, the draft called for the separation of literary and scientific colleges from Al-Azhar University and the formation of a new university, the University of Imam Muhammad Abduh for International Studies. This division aimed to bring all of Al-Azhar’s non-religious colleges under the jurisdiction of the Supreme Council of the Universities and the Ministry of Higher Education. While Al-Azhar today draws its students from graduates of Al-Azhar-run secondary schools, the new university would also have admitted students without religious backgrounds.

Al-Azhar was more successful in fighting these changes than the judiciary. While the judiciary—which was largely aghast at the changes imposed on it—is a powerful institution, Al-Azhar’s social reach is much broader. It has over 9,000 schools across the country, with over 2 million students, and its alumni pepper state institutions. The grand imam could call on Sufi and regional networks to back Al-Azhar. And even for those outside the institution’s immediate orbit, it is regarded as a national symbol, anchoring nationalist perceptions of Egypt’s leadership of Sunni Muslims. Thus, the legislative proposal set off what amounted to a lobbying campaign against the draft.

Immediately after the draft was presented to parliament, several parliamentarians approached the speaker of the House of Representatives, Ali Abdel ‘Al, to reject the draft legislation on the grounds that it violated the constitution. Al-Azhar’s strong relations with parliamentarians and its historical significance in Egypt prompted pushback from parliament that effectively killed the legislation before it was discussed. Muhammad Abu Hamed criticized the reaction and stood firmly by the draft, claiming that the parliamentarians who opposed the legislation had not had a chance to read it and were judging it unfairly. He denied he was acting on behalf of the presidency and said that this false notion had driven away potential supporters by creating an institutional power struggle that was, in his mind, nonexistent.

The reaction from parliament showcased the strength of Al-Azhar as an institution, and displayed its ability to continue to withstand pressure from the presidency. Many of the parliamentarians who resisted the bill claimed allegiance to the grand imam and believed that the legislation had crossed a line by imposing a term limit on him, while establishing an investigative mechanism that could remove him from power. In fact, members of parliament who at first supported the bill withdrew their support in light of this reaction, claiming that they did not realize the bill targeted the imam so pointedly.

But top Al-Azhar officials realized that a political misstep was especially risky at this time. When the president of Al-Azhar University made a statement implying that a prominent critic of the institution was an apostate, the grand imam immediately dismissed him. The tone of senior Al-Azhar officials on curricular reform and the “renewal of religious discourse,” a vague cause championed by Sisi, began to show a bit more responsiveness, despite their resentment at presidential intrusion in a religious matter. And when a prominent religious scholar known for his generally soft approach was heard on television seemingly denouncing Christianity, he was quickly barred from preaching by the Minister of Religious Affairs. The fact that he had been a rival for the ministerial post may have explained the alacrity with which the step was taken.

Such rivalries do open up gaps for the executive to play favorites and work factions against each other (indeed Abu Hamed, the parliamentarian who introduced the draft, claims to have consulted with senior religious figures who are often identified as rivals and critics of the current grand imam). The full frontal assault on Al-Azhar’s autonomy may have been forced into retreat, but for as long as it retains its independent voice the institution may find itself fighting a combination of trench and guerilla warfare.