Egypt’s Mubarak names successor to top cleric

Ahmed al-Tayeb named new Azhar Grand Imam

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Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Friday appointed a new head of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's most prestigious institution, after the death of its top cleric last week, the official MENA agency reported.

Mubarak, who is recovering from surgery in Germany, "has issued a presidential decree appointing Sheikh Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed al-Tayeb to head al-Azhar," MENA reported.

Tayeb, the president of al-Azhar University since 2003, succeeds Grand Imam Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, who died of a heart attack in Saudi Arabia on March 10.

Al-Azhar institution -- which groups a 10th century mosque, a university and several affiliated schools -- is Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning. Its role is to propagate Islamic teachings and culture around the world.

When Tantawi died, a member of his office, Ashraf Hassan, had said that Mohammed Wasel, Tantawi's deputy, was expected to temporarily take over leading the institution until the Egyptian president appointed a new head for the body.

Since 1961, the grand imam of al-Azhar has been appointed by presidential decree, opening up the post to criticism of being too close to the government.

"Moderate" sheikh

French-educated Tayeb also held the post of Grand Mufti, the country's most senior Islamic scholar, until September 2003.

"I want to express my deep appreciation of the trust bestowed on me by President Hosni Mubarak," Tayeb told MENA by telephone from his home town of al-Qurna, near Luxor in southern Egypt, where ululations and celebrations broke out when the news was heard.

Friends told AFP that the new grand imam was a "moderate" with "enlightened views."

"We were aware that the Islamic discourse was in dire need of a review," Tayeb told the English-language Egypt Today in an interview on the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

"Differences between people, whether in religious beliefs, thought, language or emotion, are a basic Koranic tenet. God created diverse peoples," he said before hosting the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in a bid to increase interfaith dialogue.

Tayeb is also known for his tough stance against the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and most organised opposition group, which remains officially banned despite popular support.

In 2006, he condemned a military-style parade by Brotherhood students at al-Azhar University in which they wore black facemasks "like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Republican Guard in Iran," he said at the time.

Several students were suspended from the university after the parade and dozens arrested.

Born in 1946, Tayeb joined an al-Azhar affiliated school at the age of 10, with a career spanning 40 years at the institution. He became a faculty member at al-Azhar University before becoming dean of the philosophy department.