As Egypt steps up its efforts to boost its influence in the African continent, Al-Azhar announced Aug. 2 a training course for 23 imams and preachers from Mali to fight radicalism.
Hassan al-Saghir, chairman of Al-Azhar International Academy said in aÂ statement, â€œThe goal behind the training course is to enable Malian imams to correct the misconceptions and wrong ideas about Islam and to counter extremism.â€
Mamadou Mangara, Maliâ€™s ambassador to Cairo,Â said in a statement that his â€œcountry hopes that the trained imams can confront the ideas promoted by extremists.â€
Al-Azhar has a strong presence in Mali. In a meeting with Maliâ€™s Prime Minister Moussa Mara back in 2014, Al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb announced â€œthe deployment of sheikhs and professors from Al-Azhar to work in Maliâ€™s education sector so as to instill the values â€‹â€‹of peace and moderation in the studentsâ€™ hearts.â€
Al-Azhar has also set up a branch of the World Association for Al-Azhar Graduates in Mali. The media center of Al-Azhar said in a statement in February 2019 that through its branches and programs in Mali and other African countries, the association aims to optimize Al-Azharâ€™s soft power via its graduates.
In March this year, Al-Azharâ€™s association and mission in MaliÂ organizedÂ a religious conference dubbed â€œModeration in Islam,â€ in one of Maliâ€™s mosques, during which discussion was centered on the danger of extremism and fundamentalism and on the importance of instilling the values â€‹â€‹of peace and peaceful coexistence in the community.
In cooperation with the World Association for Al-Azhar Graduates in Mali, the Al-Azhar mission, which consists of a number of Egyptian preachers in Mali, is keen to hold activities and seminars to battle extremism and spread moderate narratives.
During his visit to Cairo in May, Malian Foreign Minister Zeini Moulaye praised Al-Azharâ€™s role in promoting cultural ties between Egypt and Mali by spreading the tolerant teachings of Islam and countering extremist ideas. During a meeting with Moulaye, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stressed â€œthe Egyptian role in countering terrorism and extremism through Al-Azhar by communicating the correct concepts of Islam in Mali.â€
Al-Azharâ€™s role in Mali is not limited to advocacy, but also includes humanitarian aid. On Aug. 10, the World Association for Al-Azhar Graduates in Mali organizedÂ a series ofÂ charity activities focusing on the displaced people who were forced to flee their houses in northern Mali due to terrorist attacks. The association offered humanitarian aid in an attempt to ease the peopleâ€™s suffering.
Moreover, Al-Azhar supports the Malian army in fighting extremist groups. In May 2020, the association praisedÂ the Malian armyâ€™s efforts in combating terrorist organizations, and stressed that these groups have nothing to do with Islam and have no respect or consideration neither to believersÂ nor to any human soul and individual or public property.
The Egyptian efforts to boost its presence in Mali are not limited to Al-Azharâ€™s role, as bilateral relations also expand to diplomatic visits. During his May visit to Cairo, Moulaye met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi who voiced Egyptâ€™s keenness to help restore stability in Mali.
Sisi noted that Egypt is ready to cooperate with Mali in countering terrorism and extremism, and to jointly coordinate at the security and military levels.
At the economic level, bilateral trade between the two countries has been growing in the past years. A 2020 reportÂ issued by The Administration of African Countries and OrganizationsÂ and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) unit at the Trade Representation Authority indicated that trading volume between Egypt and Mali increased to $12.1 million in 2018, compared with $10.8 million in 2017.
The report stated that Egyptian exports to Mali rose to $12.1 million in 2018, compared with $10.5 million in 2017.
The Egyptian efforts in the WestÂ African country comes as Turkish influence in Mali is growing. Franceâ€™sÂ Le Monde wrote Aug. 5 that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was the first foreign official to visit Mali since the 2020 coup in September last year.
â€œThis visit is a sign pointing at Turkeyâ€™s support for the coup dâ€™etat, which, itself, is an attack on the French interests,â€ Le Monde continued.
Swedenâ€™s Nordic Monitor reported in a September 2020 report that â€œCavusoglu visited Mali with the goal of installing a transitional phase in line with his governmentâ€™s policies.â€
On Aug. 18, 2020, a group of soldiers led aÂ military coup in Mali, ousting President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita who was forced to resign and dissolve parliament and the government.
Although the Turkish goals in Mali have historically conflicted with the French influence there, the Egyptian efforts do not contradict with Franceâ€™s interests in Mali, as revealed inÂ a study byÂ the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies. The study, released in December 2020, found that there is significant convergence between the Egyptian and French visions to combat terrorism in the Sahel and Sahara region, including in Mali, and eliminating terrorism by countering radical ideas.
Tarek Fahmy, a professor of political sciences at Cairo University and a lecturer at the Malian Imams training program, told Al-Monitor, â€œAl-Azhar has a significant presence in Mali, and the training course is founded on educating imams and preachers and introducing moderate thought.â€
He said, â€œEgypt is keen to strengthen influence in Mali as it realizes that the Egyptian influence in Libya is correlated with its presence in Mali, neighboring Libya.â€
FahmyÂ noted,Â â€œEgypt has resorted to Al-Azhar to consolidate its presence in Mali, which France may benefit from in light of the spread of radical groups in the African country. Hence, communicating a moderate ideology in the country is a French desire, and can only be done through a time-honored Egyptian institution, such as Al-Azhar.â€
He concluded, â€œTurkey is trying to boost its present in Mali through loans and humanitarian aid, which Egypt is well aware of, which is why it is seeking to consolidate its role in Mali and in the Sahara and Sahel region.â€