(Cairo) Egypt has launched a new initiative to capitalize on the international appeal of al-Azhar, “Sunni Islam’s most prestigious university,” to forge stronger ties with other countries.

The international graduates of al-Azhar, which is both a mosque and a university located in Cairo, come at the center of the new initiative.

Branded as “Egypt, the first step on the road”, the new initiative will include a series of events and gatherings that will bring international graduates of al-Azhar together, and explore ways for these graduates to become catalysts in Egypt’s new international charm offensive to gain international support.

“Some of the international graduates of al-Azhar have assumed top positions in their countries after they graduated and returned home,” said Egypt’s Immigration Minister Nabila Makram, whose ministry collaborates with al-Azhar in implementing the initiative. “This reflects the strength of al-Azhar and the international leverage it enjoys,” she added after the launch of the initiative in late May.

Al-Azhar’s decision to utilize its international graduates in forging closer ties between Egypt and other nations comes as Cairo opens up to the international community, specifically in the economic field.

Egypt’s relations with other African countries deteriorated greatly between 1990 and the 2011 uprising that ended the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The country is now returning its eyes to the continent, focusing on the vast cooperation opportunities available among other African states.

Egypt’s relations with other Arab states and countries in Asia and Europe are also improving greatly.

The sprawling campus of al-Azhar University in southern Cairo, only meters away from the mosque, is a meeting point for thousands of students from over 100 different countries.

Most of these students study at al-Azhar for free, or on scholarships paid for by the Egyptian government. In addition to tuition costs, the students also stay at al-Azhar’s accommodation for free.

“Al-Azhar offers whatever support required for these students to focus on their study and become messengers of peace when they return home,” al-Azhar Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb said.

“When they return to their countries, al-Azhar graduates advance the values of tolerance and co-existence which they learn here.”

Al-Azhar University has branches in most of Egypt’s 27 provinces. The university is unique in that its curricula often combines theology and a range of different sciences. It has a total of 31 colleges, including colleges for Islamic law, medicine, translation, pharmacology, and agriculture.

The new initiative, the Ministry of Immigration says, will particularly focus on al-Azhar graduates who hold ministerial or executive positions in their countries.

These graduates will be invited to different events within the initiative to speak at the colleges where they studied, and also meet Egyptian government officials to discuss cooperation, the Ministry said.

One of the challenges the success of the initiative faces is whether the educational bond represented by al-Azhar’s educational services is enough to convince the former graduates of the university to bring Egypt closer to their home countries.

Funding is expected to be another challenge, given Egypt’s current economic problems, despite the aggressive economic reforms launched by its president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in late 2016.

Nevertheless, al-Azhar has confidence that it has an appeal strong enough to act as a middle ground between Egypt and other nations.

“Al-Azhar has formed the minds and the hearts of those who studied in it over the years,” said Amna Noseir, a professor of philosophy at al-Azhar University. “Some of these people are now heads of states and cabinet ministers, which puts them in a strong position to bring their countries and Egypt closer together.”

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