Clerics of Al-Azhar on Monday elected a new mufti, or Egypt's leading interpreter of Islamic law, in an unprecedented vote signalling the Islamic institute's growing independence from the government.
Shawqi Ibrahim Abdel Karim, a professor of Islamic jurisprudence, was elected by a newly-formed council of senior clerics, which submitted its nomination for President Mohamed Morsi to ratify.
"This is the first time Azhar clerics choose an Azhar scholar in balloting," said Mahmoud Azab, an advisor to Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the head of the influential Sunni Muslim institute.
"This is a new tradition we hope will continue," he said.
Previous muftis were selected by the president, openly politicising the top post, according to critics.
The outgoing mufti, Ali Gomaa, came under heavy criticism for reportedly predicting that Hosni Mubarak would go to heaven, before the dictator's overthrow in a February 2011 uprising.
After Mubarak's ouster, Al-Azhar had lobbied to change its status under law to allow its clerics to appoint the mufti and the next sheikh of Azhar, the top cleric in the country, Azab said.
The institute has sought to position itself as a moderate force above the political fray.
The new mufti, Abdel Karim, is not known to hold any political affiliations.
The Egyptian press had said the Muslim Brotherhood's Abdel Rahman al-Bar had been among the candidates, but he did not make it to a short list of three clerics.
The runner-up, Attiya al-Sayyid Fayad, has written commentaries for the Brotherhood's website and was reported to have been a member of the Islamist group on whose ticket Morsi won the presidential election in June.
The mufti is responsible for Dar al-Iftaa, a body that each year issues tens of thousands of edicts, which carry influence but not the force of law.