CAIRO Egypt's leading religious scholars spurned the ruling Muslim Brotherhood's choice and picked an apolitical Islamic law professor on Monday to be the country's top cleric.
The post of grand mufti of Egypt carries wide influence over legislation and social affairs.
"Dr Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, professor of Islamic law in Tanta University, got the highest number of votes and the matter has been sent to the president to issue his decision," a statement from al-Azhar seat of learning said.
President Mohamed Mursi, a Muslim Brotherhood member, is expected to formalise his appointment soon.
The contender groomed by the Brotherhood, Abdul Rahman al-Bar, 50, a 30-year veteran of the conservative Islamist group and member of its decision-making Supreme Guidance Council, was not even in the top three nominees, officials said.
The grand mufti delivers televised sermons on major Muslim holidays and is empowered to issue opinions (fatwas) on any matter, influencing legislation on social and cultural issues, public behaviour and court rulings.
Allam chairs the department of jurisprudence in the Sharia law faculty in al-Azhar's university in the northern Nile delta town of Tanta. The mufti's office gave his age as 55. He will serve until the normal retirement age of 60.
"This is big vote of trust in me and I hope to God that I will be up to the task," Allam told Reuters. He declined to discuss his views until the president makes the appointment.
A panel of Islamic scholars took the decision after "detailed study of the applicants based on scientific legal standards, the adoption of al-Azhar's moderate agenda and an estimation of their psychological and moral suitability", the official statement said.
Insiders said the Brotherhood had pushed for Bar despite warnings that his candidacy would be seen as part of a power grab to dominate all state institutions.
"It seems some council members were sensitive to the strong public resistance to Bar's nomination, which led them to change their mind," a senior official in the mufti's office said. He said the new mufti had no political or sectarian religious affiliations.
The selection was made amid anti-Mursi public protests on the second anniversary of the resignation of veteran President Hosni Mubarak, ousted by a pro-democracy uprising.
(Reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Mohamed Abdallah; Editing by Paul Taylor/Ruth Pitchford)