Key Islamic seminary braces for historic election

Academics at Al-Azhar University, Egypt’s and the Muslim world's oldest seat of higher learning, will soon get the opportunity to elect the massive institution’s president for the first time in its history.

The Supreme Al-Azhar Council, which is in charge of the public university, has agreed that its president will be selected through an electoral college representing the university's academics – a move inspired by secular higher education institutions in the country.

Several Egyptian universities have in the past two years elected their leaders, dropping a decades-long tradition in which state authorities appointed them. The U-turn came after a popular revolt toppled long-serving president Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

"The election decision was unanimously taken by the Supreme Council to cope with the changes brought about by the January 25 revolution," said an official at Al-Azhar.

The announcement came just weeks after the university's former president, Osama al-Abd, was sacked over a mass food poisoning of nearly 500 students at the university’s residences in Cairo.

That incident sparked massive protests on the campus, including angry students blocking a major road in the Egyptian capital. The country’s Islamist President Mohammed Mursi visited some of the hospitalised students.

Only Muslims are allowed to attend Al-Azhar institutes in this predominantly Muslim country of 84 million people. An estimated 32,000 Muslim scholars from more than 100 countries are also attending Al-Azhar, which is widely revered as a symbol of moderate Islam.

As part of preparations for the landmark elections, according to media reports the Al-Azhar Supreme Council agreed last week to form a three-judge commission to handle the voting process.

The panel will be responsible for receiving applications from contenders, counting votes, announcing the winner and investigating any appeals against the result.

The date of the election has yet to be set, but it is expected to be held in June following end-of-year examinations.

Academics interested in standing for the Al-Azhar presidency have to meet certain criteria. According to local media, to be eligible a candidate should have completed all stages of education at Al-Azhar institutes, from school up to university.

Candidacy for the post will be further restricted to professors who graduated from Al-Azhar colleges that teach Islamic disciplines or the Arabic language. Al-Azhar also has colleges that teach non-religious subjects such as medicine, engineering, pharmacology and foreign languages.

Al-Azhar University was originally established to train Muslim preachers. The institution limited its curriculum to Islamic theology until 1961, when then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered that non-religious subjects also be taught at Al-Azhar.

Until 1961, enrolment in Al-Azhar was limited to males. Since then, female students have also been allowed to be admitted, attending females-only colleges.

More than 500,000 male and female students are currently enrolled in an estimated 70 institutes affiliated to Al-Azhar University.