CAIRO // The death of Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi this week fuelled demands by opposition figures that the head of Al Azhar, the most prestigious Sunni religious institution in the world, be elected by a body of scholars and not appointed by the state.
It has also reignited speculation about his possible successor. "We demand that the sheikh of Al Azhar be elected by Azhar scholars and not appointed by the president," said Hamdi Hassan, spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc, Egypt's strongest opposition group, in parliament. "Unfortunately, the status of Al Azhar has deteriorated, and it is no longer playing its role for Egypt, Arabs and Muslims," he said. "It's very essential that Al Azhar regain its role, and this won't happen while a government employee is at its head.
Since 1961, the Egyptian president has appointed the mufti and sheikh of Al Azhar. The president Hosni Mubarak, who appointed Sheikh Tantawi in 1996, issued a statement on Wednesday, mourning "one of the respected scholars of Islam and one of the defenders of Islam's enlightenment and tolerance". President Mubarak, 81, is recovering in Germany after having his gallbladder removed there on Saturday.
The independent legislator Moustafa Bakri and others complained, however, that Sheikh Tantawi ignored important issues. "While saying voters should vote, he remained silent about rigging elections, torture in police stations, contaminated food and widespread poverty," Mr Bakri said yesterday. "May God rest Sheikh's Tantawi's soul in peace, but he [had] become more royal than the king lately, and forgot his Islamic role, and was just serving the interests of those who appointed him."
The opposition leader Ayman Nour wrote in the daily Al Dostour: "May God have mercy on Sheikh Tantawi for his [religious] knowledge, and forgive him for working in politics. The problem of the man is that he became a party of political struggle, was tolerant of different religions, but not different opinions inside and outside Al Azhar." "We hope that a respected scholar would come to lead Al Azhar, modernise its role and regain its status," added Mr Nour, who finished distant second to President Mubarak in the first presidential elections in 2005.
Sheikh Ali Gomaa, the head of Dar al-Iftaa, or the religious edicts house, at Al Azhar is considered to be a likely candidate to replace Sheikh Tantawi. He is known as a moderate and a moderniser. Another candidate is Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the head of Al Azhar University. There are reports that Hamdi Zaqzouq, the minister of religious affairs, will also be a candidate. In the meantime, Mohammed Abdel Aziz Wassel, the deputy of Al Azhar, will assume Sheikh Tantawi's duties.
The prime minister Ahmed Nazif, who is running the state's affairs until Mr Mubarak returns, did not announce a state of mourning. However, Friday prayers across Egypt will be dedicated to Sheikh Tantawi and official condolences will be accepted at Omar Makram Mosque in Cairo on Friday evening. While some lamented that Al Azhar under Sheikh Tantawi had not done much to bridge the differences between Sunnis and Shites, Ali el-Semman, the head of the Dialogue Committee in the Supreme Islamic Council, said yesterday: "Sheikh Tantawi was very keen on Muslim-Christian dialogue, and he was the one who emphasised that such dialogue won't address the doctrines of the two religions, but search for the common ground between them."