CAIRO // The Grand Imam of Al Azhar is seeking to sideline Egyptian extremists who performed well in parliamentary elections with a "bill of rights" that would uphold religious freedom and expression.
Islamic rulings protect freedom of speech and religion and guarantee equal citizenship rights, Sheikh Ahmed El Tayeb, who heads the historic centre of learning of Sunni Islam, said yesterday.
He did not specifically name the Salafists in unveiling the bill of rights, but analysts and political figures said the document was a pre-emptive strike against any attempts to push the country towards a theocracy.
Salafists follow an ultraconservative strain of Islam. Members of Al Nour, their political party, have said they would put forward laws to restrict the presidential elections to Muslim men and have made other remarks that gave rise to fears that minority groups, such as Coptic Christians who make up as much as 10 per cent of Egypt's population, would be excluded from governance. The party's campaign slogans have called for a return to Sharia.
Hassan Nafaa, a member of the consultative council to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), said yesterday the Al Azhar Bill of Rights and an earlier document espousing a moderate interpretation of Islamic governance were created to prevent radical changes to Egypt's government before the rewriting of the constitution even begins.
"Al Azhar is playing a more moderate role than the Muslim Brotherhood," he said.
"The debate we will see about the constitution may be focused on the Salafist proposition to implement Sharia. This is an attempt to shift the discussion to principles of Sharia, rather than just putting in place Sharia."
With Islamist political groups dominating the first round of elections, there were fears that they would use the opportunity to leave a lasting and difficult-to-reverse Islamist tinge on the country's founding document.
The newly elected lower house of parliament's first task after convening on January 23 will be to create a 100-member committee to rewrite the constitution.
But with Islamists - including Al Nour and the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Freedom and Justice Party - holding more than 70 per cent of the seats, liberal groups have expressed fears that the country's founding document could be dramatically changed in a way that would infringe on individual freedoms.
The Freedom and Justice Party has sought to assuage these fears in recent days, saying it would respect all minority groups and preserve freedom of expression.
Mazen Hassan, a professor of political science at Cairo University, said Al Azhar had taken the position that Egypt could be an Islamic democracy without making substantial changes to the constitution.
"The view of Al Azhar is that Muslim countries should be ruled by Islamic rules, but that we should have a constitution that says Sharia is the source of legislation and does not replace all laws," he said.
"It's a good step for the country because it shows that interpretations of religious doctrines could be diverse."
The bill of rights is also a bid by Al Azhar, which has been closely controlled by the government since Gamal Abdel Nasser took control of the institution when he was Egypt's president in the early 1960s, to carve out a bigger role for itself since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president in February. It had long been seen as a cog of the executive branch to maintain the status quo and quell dissent against the government.
There are important questions being asked inside the institution about its role in the new Egypt, said Nathan Brown, a professor of international relations Georgetown University in Washington.
"I think what is on the verge of happening is that the institution will finally get the independence it has been pressing for," Mr Brown, whose research focuses on issues of constitutionalism, rule of law and democracy in the Arab world, said.
"It will be an institution responsive not to the high political authority, but to the scholars within its own ranks. It does play an international role and has some international prestige, but you can no longer call them the dominant voice in the Sunni world. They mean to change that."
Sheikh Tayeb has drafted a document proposing that the Grand Imam of Al Azhar be elected by the Senior Scholars Authority instead of the state-controlled Islamic Research Academy, according to a report in the
Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. The move would effectively wrest the power of appointing the institution's top position from the president, a first step toward independence.