In a blow to the sheikh of Al-Azhar’s quest for religious supremacy, a Cairo court on May 9 reversed the banning of the conservative Al Azhar Scholar’s Front (ASF), that has been the bane of Sheikh Muhammad Sayed Tantawi’s career.
According to the Administrative Court’s ruling which came as a surprise to many, there was no legal precedent for Cairo Governor Abdel Rahim Shehata to depose the Front’s conservative leaders.
"Normally, organizations like ours can be sequestered or disbanded only after a case of financial irregularities and administrative malpractice has been raised," said Sheikh Yehia Ismail, former secretary-general of the ASF.
However, in this situation Ismail explained, the ban came out of the blue.
Shehata’s decree in June 1998 disbanding the Front’s ruling council was largely seen as a last-ditch effort by Sheikh Tantawi to reign in his opponents and roll back their gains.
"Whether it suits him or not, we are back and there is nothing he [Tantawi] can do about it," Ismail pointed out.
Tantawi ordered the removal of the ASF’s leaders from office after a series of confrontations with the hard-line conservatives running the organization.
Initially, Tantawi had suggested that the ASF’s leaders call for an extraordinary meeting of the general assembly to amend the organization’s bylaws in a way that would restrict the Front to cultural and social activities.
The ASF’s leadership refused to succumb to Tantawi’s dictates, arguing that such a move would harm the organization’s credibility and hobble its ability to present any formidable challenge to Tantawi’s "unpopular" policies.
Tantawi responded by advising the governor to evict the ASF’s leading figures from office. The governor complied.
Two months later, the deposed leaders of the Front took their case to court.
In its ruling, the court argued that the conflict between Sheikh Tantawi and his opponents did not merit their displacement from the organization.
Since he was appointed sheikh of Al-Azhar in 1996, Tantawi has increasingly become unpopular among conservative scholars who resent his relatively liberal views on certain Islamic issues.
The conservatives also complained that Tantawi was too compliant with the wishes of the state and they have been applying pressure on him to walk the Azhar walk.
Tensions escalated over Tantawi’s alleged visits to the Lions and Rotary clubs, his meeting with an Israeli Rabbi in 1997 and Tantawi’s attempts to overhaul Al-Azhar’s educational system.
Both groups traded accusations, attacked one another in the press and used Egypt’s courts as a grandstand for airing the other’s dirty linen.
It was possible the court explained, "that the conflict could be resolved through means other than those which infringed upon people’s rights to express themselves freely."
Although not an official arm of Al-Azhar, ASF opinions carry some weight and in recently, the Front had become notorious for raging against moderate Islamic scholars and secular thinkers.
The court ruling also invalidates all the steps taken by Tantawi and his supporters to tighten their grip on the Front.
The measures taken by Tantawi included changing the organization’s name to the Charitable Association for Al-Azhar Employees and amending the Front’s bylaws to suit Tantawi’s interests.
Then a meeting of the "defunct" Front’s general assembly was hastily convened to elect a ruling council for the new organization.
As it was widely expected, nearly all those elected were staunch Tantawi supporters including their leader Sheikh Fawzi Al-Zifzaf, Tantawi’s immediate assistant at Al-Azhar.
"The general assembly is the highest authority of the organization and their decision to elect new leaders and amend the organization’s bylaws was final," ZifZaf said. "As far as we are concerned, the Front does not exist."
In addition, Al-Azhar allegedly terminated the lease on the ASF headquarters in central Cairo and moved the activities of the new organization inside Al-Azhar and well within earshot of Tantawi.
"They sold our premises but that does not mean that they have sold the Front," snapped Ismail. "As a matter of fact, the Front’s activities were never confined inside a building."
Tantawi loyalists maintain that the court’s ruling "halting the implementation of the governor’s decree" did not make much sense since as Sheikh Zifzaf put it, "the general assembly had already made up its mind and the Ministry of Social Affairs had also given the go-ahead for Tantawi’s new project."
While the ASF’s ousted leaders are exerting every effort to regain control of their organization, Tantawi and his fans have vowed to hang tough.
And it appears that far from ending the stand-off between the two groups, the court’s ruling has only helped set the scene for renewed hostilities between Sheikh Tantawi and his opponents.