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Trading accusations
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 10 - 2013

Minister of Awqaf Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa has instructed preachers to limit the Friday sermon to 15 minutes. A recent memorandum circulated throughout the ministry's branches noted that “all preachers should restrict the Friday sermon to 15 minutes, or a maximum of 20 minutes for the main sermon and post-sermon remarks.”
The memorandum noted the time limit has the advantage of “keeping sermons focussed and not distracting the worshippers with too many topics” and added that issues requiring longer discussion, such as theological interpretations and explanations of the Prophet's teachings, can be addressed in the “special classes preachers give in accordance with their duties and the [ministry's] preaching scheme”.
Gomaa also ordered that loud speakers in mosques and zawyas (smaller prayer rooms attached to residential or commercial buildings) be used only during the call to prayer and the Friday sermon. The ministry had earlier attempted to close down mosques and zawyas less than 80 square metres in size, a decision that met with stiff resistance from many members of the public. Many small zawyas remain open, and people continue to pray in them.
Now the minister of religious endowments has announced all preachers not Al-Azhar-trained are to be dismissed from mosque duty. Mosques have also been ordered to close their doors to the public from dusk till dawn.
The decision to close down mosques at night followed the dispersal of the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins, leading many to conclude that its aim is to stop mosques from being used as gathering points for protests.
The Salafist Nour Party has objected to the closure of small mosques as well as the dismissal of non-Azharite preachers.
“Worshippers are already praying in the streets during Friday prayers due to the lack of mosque space. What do you expect to happen once we close down the small mosques?” asked Nour spokesman Sherif Taha.
Taha went on to point out that many preachers who have no connection with Al-Azhar are known to speak in defence of moderate Islam, one reason the minister gave for his decision.
If the ministry wants to ascertain the proficiency of preachers, says Taha, it should examine all preachers and judge them equally, in an orderly manner. Otherwise the choice of preachers may be influenced by security and political considerations, he warned.
Nour leaders asked the minister to reverse his decisions, arguing that the political environment was inappropriate for such steps, but he refused to budge.
Meeting with Gomaa, Nour officials led by Younis Makhioun voiced their opposition to the closure of small mosques and the ban on non-Azharite preachers, arguing the measures were designed to exclude Salafis from preaching. Gomaa's answer was that the decisions are not intended to exclude any individuals or currents. Following the encounter the minister issued a statement saying that the measures “have nothing to do with politics and do not aim at excluding any current, but instead rest on legitimate and patriotic grounds”.
Arguing that banning Friday prayers in zawyas was “in keeping with Sharia objectives”, the minister proceeded to circulate copies of an edict passed by Dar Al-Iftaa, Egypt's top authority in matters of religious laws, in support of his position.
After failing to convince the minister to rescind his decisions Nour officials asked the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, to intercede on their behalf. That Al-Tayeb would respond positively to the request seems unlikely. The Grand Imam is not particularly sympathetic to the Salafist cause or their growing influence over places of worship.
Gomaa's decisions met with the approval of political and religious groups opposed to the extremist ideas some preachers have propagated from mosque pulpits.
Gomaa's decisions may, however, run into practical obstacles.
According to unofficial figures Egypt has 45,000 non-Azharite preachers. In the past they have been used by the Ministry of Religious Endowments to supplement the shortfall in Azhar-trained preachers. The ministry supervises over 100,000 mosques, but has only 60,000 Azharite preachers on its registry. In addition the ministry controls 13,000 zawyas. Many more are not registered with the Awqaf.
A lawsuit challenging many of the controversial decisions has been filed with the Administrative Court. The plaintiffs argue the decisions violate both the principles of Sharia and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Basira, one of Egypt's leading polling services, found in a recent survey that 56 per cent of the public were opposed to the minister's decision to close zawyas, 32 per cent were in favour and 12 per cent were undecided.
Gomaa's recent decisions may have the support of liberal politicians, but they appear to sit less well with the general public. Critics of the decisions see them as a throwback to pre-revolutionary arrangements and an attempt to curb the power of the government's opponents.
A recent tour of the densely-populated Boulaq Al-Dakrour, a neighbourhood with numerous zawyas, showed that most of these operated as usual.
To sum up, the recent decisions by the Awqaf minister may have had the support of liberal politicians, but they lacked the general support of the public. Critics of the decisions see them as a throwback to pre-revolutionary arrangements, and an attempt to curb the power of the government's opponents. Nor is it at all clear that the ministry has the power to enforce them.

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