(Update: Contrary to expectations and speculation in Egyptian media, the Al-Azhar scholars’ panel Monday did not select the Muslim Brotherhood’s nominee as Egypt’s next grand mufti. Instead they named Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim, an Islamic jurisprudence professor, to the post.)(CNSNews.com) – The anticipated naming Monday of a Muslim Brotherhood nominee to the position of grand mufti of Egypt coincides with escalating protests against a ruling party already accused of dominating the nation.
A panel of religious scholars at Al-Azhar – the top seat of learning in Sunni Islam – will name the appointee to the top post after narrowing the field down to three, and then voting by secret ballot to send one name to President Mohammed Morsi.
Favored to win is the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Abdel Rahman el-Bar, dean of Al-Azhar’s theology faculty and a member of the Brotherhood’s guidance council.
“El-Bar's candidacy has sparked controversy as critics of the Brotherhood fear the ruling group aims to monopolize final words on religious matters by shooting to control the position of the mufti,” the Al-Ahram daily said Sunday.
If el-Bar gets the nod, the Brotherhood will further tighten its hold over key institutions.
It already controls the presidency – despite Morsi’s pro forma resignation from his party after his election – dominates the upper house of parliament, the Shura (“Consultative”) Council, and was hugely influential in drafting Egypt’s controversial new Islamist constitution.
The Brotherhood also held the largest number of seats in the lower house of parliament, the People’s Assembly, before it was dissolved by a court order. New elections are expected for around April.
The outgoing mufti, Ali Gomaa, has been in the post since 2003 and has already stayed one year beyond the compulsory retirement age of 60, after the then-ruling military council early last year agreed to keep him on.
The Al-Azhar scholars’ panel asked for the tenure to be extended again, but Morsi’s office turned down the request.
According to Al-Ahram, eighteen men have held the position of grand mufti since 1895.
The announcement of a new grand mufti comes on a day when opposition groups plan large new demonstrations to mark the second year anniversary of the departure from office of former President Hosni Mubarak.
The parties are focusing their protests on the Muslim Brotherhood government, which they accuse of trying to “crush the revolution” and dominate Egypt.
At least 59 people have been killed and hundreds injured in violent clashes since protests erupted on January 25, the second anniversary of the start of the anti-Mubarak upheaval.
In the capital’s Tahrir Square, a sit-in tent protest that began after Morsi granted himself additional powers last November remains in place. Protestors’ demands include new presidential elections and a new constitution-drafting process.
The departing mufti, Gomaa, is generally viewed as a moderate who has been involved in interfaith dialogue initiatives, and who reacted to last year’s publication by a satirical French magazine of cartoons lampooning Mohammed by calling for calm among Egypt’s Muslims, saying that Mohammed himself endured personal attacks without retaliating.
He has also taken some controversial stances, however. In 2006 when Saudi clerics issued a fatwa saying Sunnis should not support Hezbollah, on the grounds that it is Shi’ite, Gomaa came to the militant group’s defense, saying it was defending Lebanon against Israeli “injustice.”
Last year Gomaa declared the amateur online video denigrating Mohammed to be “offensive to all Muslims.” When Egyptians protested against the “Innocence of Muslims” film outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, some breached the compound walls, destroyed an American flag and raised a black banner stating, “There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.”