Once the preacher of a quiet mosque on the edge of Tahrir Square, Mazhar Shahin has become one of the most recognisable faces of the protests that ousted president Hosni Mubarak in February and which now call for the military to step down.
A roar of approval swept through the tens of thousands of demonstrators in Tahrir Square on Friday when Shahin called for the ruling generals to hand power to a government named by the protesters.
“The revolution is the one that thinks, the revolution is the one that decides, it is the one that judges,” said the cleric in his Friday prayer sermon.
“Our revolution was a body without a head. Today, the revolution will have a head,” he said of a proposed civilian government that includes opposition luminaries such as former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamad ElBaradei.
With his cropped beard and white turban wrapped around a red fez, Shahin looks like the traditional government-appointed mosque preacher who, for years under Mubarak’s rule extolled the regime’s virtues.
But the sheikh has become a thorn in the side of the country’s rulers — first Mubarak, and now the ruling generals — with his vigorous denunciations of their abuses and calls for protesters to hold firm to their demands.
“Few of the revolution’s demands have been met,” he told the protesters on Friday. “The people insist on completing their revolution. Either we live in dignity, or we die here in Tahrir.”
“God is greatest!” roared the crowd after the end of prayers.
“In the past few days, he’s really been amazing. He’s really spoken up for us,” said one of the protesters, movie director Mohammed al-Qalawi, a liberal.
“He’s an exception to the other clerics. He saw for himself the martyrs that died here since the revolution started, and expresses what we want to say,” said another protester, Yasmine Hani.
The Al-Azhar educated Shahin, protesters say, was also ahead of his time. When he first joined the January revolt, Al-Azhar, the Sunni world’s most prestigious institution, appeared to side with Mubarak, who appointed its head.
Now, Al-Azhar, led by Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, a former senior member of Mubarak’s ruling part, has finally followed in Shahin’s footsteps, siding with the demonstrators who have been protesting non-stop against the military since Saturday.
On Wednesday, Tayyeb issued a surprisingly strong statement calling on the police never to point their weapons at protesters, “no matter what the reasons” and spoke of the “sacrifices” of the demonstrators.
Al-Azhar sent clerics to the square to enforce a ceasefire between the protesters and police on Thursday, after five days of clashes near the square had killed more than 30 protesters.
Tayyeb’s statement, at a time when activist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood criticised the protesters, went a long way in restoring the institution’s credibility.
On Friday, Al-Azhar clerics mingled with protesters chanting for an end to military rule
“The grand imam (Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb) backs you and is praying for your victory,” a senior aide to Tayyeb, Hassan Shafie, told the protesters during a visit to the square.