Muslim clerics from Al-Azhar, Egypt's premier religious institution, chose the country's top Islamic jurist in a direct and secret ballot on Monday that was the first such vote in six decades.
An official statement by the 24-member Senior Scholars Authority says that it elected Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim, a professor in Islamic jurisprudence, to the post of Grand Mufti. The selection is now expected to be ratified by President Mohammed Morsi, which will make it final.
Previously, the Grand Mufti was appointed by the president. But after the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's interim military rulers amended Al-Azhar's bylaws.
The election of Abdel-Karim from among three candidates came against a backdrop of heightened political tensions and protests over Morsi's rule. Many expected his powerful backers — the Muslim Brotherhood — to field their own candidate for the job.
"There are sleeping cells inside Al-Azhar and they are waking up," said political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan, referring to Brotherhood-aligned clerics associated with the institution. The selection of new members of the Senior Scholars Authority could provide a chance for the group to gain influence there, he added.
Egypt's newly adopted constitution, drafted by an Islamist-led panel and passed in a public referendum in December, empowered Al-Azhar to review draft laws to see if they violate Shariah, or Islamic law. Liberals and some secular Muslims saw the new powers as moving toward the establishment of a religious state.
The Brotherhood, whose voters put Morsi into power as the country's first democratically elected president, has been charged by the liberal opposition and a broad group of Egyptians of trying to monopolize power. Abdel-Rahman el-Bar, considered the group's top jurist, was among those believed to have contested the election. El-Bar however denied this.
"Egypt is full of highly qualified and knowledgeable men who fit the post," he told The Associated Press.
The Grand Mufti has a variety of tasks in Egypt. He reviews and ratifies death sentences issued by courts. He also is responsible for announcing the dates of the months based on a lunar calendar, which in turn determines when the important Muslim fasting month begins. In response to citizens' requests, he issues religious edicts, known as fatwas, and he gives opinions over government policies.
Abdel-Karim will be the country's 19th Grand Mufti since 1895. He succeeds the moderate Ali Gomaa, who served for eight years.