On July 3, 2013, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, surrounded by a group of national figures, announced the deposition of Mohammed Morsi as president of Egypt and a “road map” to a new political order in Egypt. Conspicuous among his backers was Grand Imam Ahmad al-Tayyib, the sheikh of Al-Azhar, the center of religious learning in Egypt.

Yet in the subsequent three and a half years the relationship between the president and the sheikh, while outwardly correct generally, has sometimes seemed testy, with the two directing oblique and sometimes direct criticism at each other. A series of tense public exchanges began two years ago with a presidential speech instructing Al-Azhar to take responsibility for a “renewal of religious discourse” and continued with a series of presidential statements suggesting that Al-Azhar was falling short of that role. 

Much more recently Sisi told Tayyib in a public setting—albeit with a smile and proclamation of respect—that the sheikh was “torturing” him. And late last month, Sisi brought up the high divorce rate in Egypt and then, directing his words toward Tayyib himself, said (still with a smile), “You wear me out.” The awkwardness between the two is playing out at three levels: it involves personalities, addresses matters of principle, and is also political.


After the July 3 show of solidarity, the relationship between Tayyib and Sisi immediately revealed signs of tension. While Tayyib endorsed the actions that had been taken, he stood somewhat aloof when the struggle between the new regime and the deposed president’s supporters turned violent. Not only did he indicate discomfort with the harshness of the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood (absenting himself from Cairo during the bloodiest phase), he was also likely mindful that the religious public in Egypt was badly divided and that his alignment with the new regime provoked bitter arguments among those who favored and opposed the July 3 coup.

But the personal relationship is not just about the past. Sisi has directed criticism generally toward Al-Azhar for what is seen by some as inadequate implementation of meaningful curriculum reform; indeed, the president has directed some of his words toward Tayyib himself. In response, Tayyib has relentlessly pushed back, insisting that this is an issue that Al-Azhar has been pursuing properly and in its own way, implicitly suggesting it did not need instruction from a figure who lacks Azhari credentials.

In the Egyptian press, however, Tayyib has not been lauded for his assertions of Al-Azhar’s autonomy and expertise, but instead berated for his defiance of the regime and painted as an enabler of radicalization. Some commentators have called for Tayyib’s resignation, claiming that he is incapable of spearheading the movement towards a modernized form of Islam that provides an alternative to radical ideologies. Even as he faces such charges, Tayyib is criticized by some within the religious community as an agent of the regime. Any changes made to the Azhari curriculum are met with widespread criticism and protests from students, who believe that this is a violation of their right to a comprehensive Islamic education as well as a political distraction.

While both men constantly reaffirm their mutual respect, Al-Azhar’s gradual approach towards religious reform and its insistence on autonomy run against the grain of Sisi’s domestic and international efforts to position himself as the champion of moderation and the leader in eradicating terrorism.


The specific issue in the latest dispute involves state recognition of divorce. When complaining to Tayyib, the president was asserting that the ability of Egyptian husbands to divorce their wives by oral statement allowed for the impetuous dissolution of families. A more formal procedure in which divorce would only be granted with written documentation and witnesses was necessary to counteract this phenomenon. With his statement, the president seemed implicitly to be suggesting that the sheikh and his institution were undermining Egyptian family life with their old-fashioned approach to divorce.

In this way, Sisi was positioning himself simultaneously as the defender of the Egyptian family and of Egyptian women’s rights. And his supporters are responding. For example, immediately after Sisi’s remarks, the Religious Committee of parliament announced that it was drawing up legislation to meet the demands of the presidency. The committee supports the president’s proposal and believes that this new law will significantly reduce divorce rates in Egypt, strengthening familial ties. And such a view has religious justification. Amr Hamroush, the head of the Religious Committee, argues that the Sharia calls for family unity, which is what the new law intends to reinforce, making it religiously legitimate.

There is little dispute that divorce rates in Egypt are high, and they are climbing. According to Sisi’s address during the Police Day celebrations, the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS) reported that out of the 900,000 marriages that take place annually, 40 percent end in divorce within the first five years of marriage. The CAPMAS 2015 report revealed that there were 969, 399 documented divorces in 2015 as opposed to the 953,137 divorces in 2014, an increase of 1.7 percent.

But while there is widespread worry about the high (and climbing) divorce rate, there is considerable controversy about how to address the problem. Indeed, it seems implausible that oral divorce is the major cause. Since it is not new, it would not seem to be the cause of the increase. And critics of the proposal point out that while oral divorce is legal, it is still not effective until legally registered. Impetuous divorce still needs bureaucratic steps before it is legally recognized. Advocates of reform retort that the divorce comes as a surprise to wives who are only informed when the divorce becomes officially recognized. Women’s rights groups are in favor of the legislation for the protection and power it provides women, however they are skeptical that it will decrease divorce rates.

More broadly, the issue is not simply one of law. While divorce might be legally easy, husbands can incur major costs if they exercise their divorce rights (in signing marriage contracts, many grooms pledge a sizable amount to be paid to their brides if they divorce them). Thus, the religious establishment tends to come up with a variety of responses to the high divorce rate, from blaming legal changes in 2000 that make divorce easier for women to giving the official responsible for registering marriages and other religious officials training and support in social work and mediation. They believe that verbal divorce is a practice well established in Islamic law since the very beginning and refuse to accept any legal denunciation of the practice. To the religious establishment, significant educational reform, increased economic opportunities, and social awareness are the solutions to high divorce rates.

While Al-Azhar’s leaders do not rule out legal change, they insist on careful and studied steps and resist those that they see as violating Islamic law. Dr. Abbas Shuman, the leader of Al-Azhar’s committee of senior scholars and a key Tayyib ally, has stated that the committee is conducting intense research to provide Islamic support for possible legislation. The former chair of the Fatwa Committee of Al-Azhar, Abdel-Hamid al-Atrash, believes that reforming divorce laws will not reduce the instances of unregistered oral divorce, putting women at a severe disadvantage before the state. For him, formalized marriage is a relatively new phenomenon in Egypt and came about because of moral deterioration, which forced the state to take matters into its own hands. Atrash claims that priority should be given to improving values rather than implementing legislation.


These sorts of responses from religious officials and scholars likely amount to foot dragging and obscurantism in the eyes of the impatient president. But there is something else at play: institutional politics in Egypt. The president is up not simply against the grand imam but also critical parts of the judicial and religious establishment anxious to protect their autonomy.

In 2000 the Supreme Constitutional Court reviewed and largely approved a law allowing women to demand divorce from the courts if they forfeited most material claims. But that law also included a provision similar in spirit to the one the president is demanding now.  And the court ruled that provision unconstitutional in part because it violated clear Islamic legal principles.

And this month, faced with the presidential statement, Tayyib convened the Council of Senior Scholars for support. On February 12, the council—a body formed in 2011 to give Al-Azhar fuller autonomy—reaffirmed the religious legitimacy of oral divorce and refused to back the president’s calls for abolishing the practice. In a statement released by the council, the scholars maintained the validity of verbal divorce as fully established in Islamic law. They did allow for political authorities to insist on legal changes that did not tamper with that practice but circumscribed it in effect—for instance, by punishing those who fail to record and document their divorce with the courts within a reasonable timeframe. 

The council disagreed with the president that eliminating verbal divorce would translate into lower divorce rates. To combat rising divorce, the council instead proposed focusing more on social change such as better education, improving religious understanding of marriage, and drug abuse prevention. Although the statement attempted to harmonize the demands of the presidency with Islamic law, it illustrated Al-Azhar’s autonomy and ability to publicly oppose the regime. Egypt’s supreme political institution (the presidency) now finds itself standing against its supreme religious one (Al-Azhar), moving the battle outside the purely personal realm.

Thus, when the president says to the grand imam “you wear me out” he may be referring to the discord within the Egyptian state as much as he is expressing concern about the condition of the Egyptian family. Sisi is unquestionably at the command of the Egyptian state—but the Egyptian state is sometimes proving a difficult entity (or set of entities) to command. The judiciary and Al-Azhar have presented him with headaches—the first with occasional judgments that deal the regime embarrassing setbacks; the second by insisting that it takes orders from nobody on religious law or educational reform. 

Neither stands in opposition and indeed, the regime has plenty of supporters within both the judicial and the religious apparatus. But at the top of both sets of institutions stand figures who seek to preserve what they see as their autonomy and insist that their specific expertise be respected even if it leads in directions that do not serve the short-term desires of the country’s rulers.