Egypt’s Lonely Shiites Struggle for Rights, No Matter the Regime in Charge

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Manu Brabo / AP

Egyptian Shiites wait outside of the al-Hussein mosque to mark the festival of Ashoura, in Cairo, Nov. 14, 2013.

For most of modern Egypt’s history, Taher Al-Hashimi has seen his community neglected at best, suppressed and hunted at worst. “We were persecuted under [former President Hosni] Mubarak and under [former President Mohammed] Morsi it reached the stage of killing our leaders,” said Hashimi, a member of Egypt’s small Shiite Muslim minority.

So when Morsi, a former Muslim Brotherhood official, was ousted from the presidency in a popularly-supported July coup, Hashimi saw an opportunity. Public sentiment has turned harshly against the Brotherhood and their ultraconservative Salafist allies and a new constitution is being written that, according to news reports, promises unprecedented protections for religious minorities.

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So with last Thursday bringing Ashura — one of Shiite Islam’s most important holidays — Hashimi and a handful of other native-born Shiites decided to test the waters a bit. They announced plans to publicly observe Ashura at Old Cairo’s Al-Hussein Mosque, something they never would have dared under Morsi or Mubarak. “We had hoped that all groups in the new Egypt would be able to enjoy their full rights,” said Hashimi

Ashura commemorates the martyrdom of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Imam Al-Hussein, whose decapitated head is believed to be buried in Al-Hussein. But when Hashimi and a small group of Shiites approached Al-Hussein on Thursday evening, they found the whole area on security lockdown and the mosque closed for maintenance. “We couldn’t enter, so we said our prayers at the door and then left peacefully,” he said.

The obstacles weren’t exactly a surprise. The Shiite group’s announcement had set off a week of frantic media speculation about whether the plan would lead to violence. Local Salafists threatened to physically oppose the Shiites.

In the end, government officials barely maintained the pretense that maintenance was the real reason for closing the mosque. Sabri Ebada, undersecretary in the Ministry of Religious Endowment, told the Youm Al Sabaa newspaper, “the ministry will not allow any celebrations or calls that aim to divide Muslims in Egypt.”

Hashimi’s attempt to step into the light had instead revealed just how far his community may still have to go to gain the right to truly worship freely in Egypt. The public showdown reveals some of the social complexities roiling Egypt after the rise and fall of Morsi and the Brotherhood. Previously timid religious minorities, like the Shiites and the similarly small Bahai community, are becoming more assertive, while conservative Sunni elements still hold sway in a society that remains deeply religious.

Islamists no longer run the government, but Egypt does not seem to be experiencing a new dawn of religious openness. And Shiites in particular still feel persecuted. Their plight reflects the wider regional Sunni-Shiite tensions that have been unleashed by the fall of Saddam Hussein 10 years ago (allowing Iraq’s oppressed Shiite majority to gain power) and more recently by the Arab Spring, which stoked Shiite ambitions in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Even in a country like Egypt, not known for this kind of religious friction and without a large Shiite population, tensions are high.

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Egypt is overwhelmingly Sunni now, but in the 12th century the country was the heart of the Shiite Fatamid empire. Estimates of the number of Shiites in the country vary, ranging from 800,000 to 1.5 million out of 80 million Egyptians. Most school children are taught little or nothing about Shiite history and ideology, and many Egyptians regard Shiites as alien or sinister. Ashura, one of the saddest days on the Shiite calendar, barely registers in Egypt.

Under Morsi’s Sunni Muslim Brotherhood party, Egypt was backed by the wealthy Sunni nation of Qatar, and Morsi’s Salafist coalition partners were particularly wary of the Shiites. In March of this year, Salafists prevented the arrival in Cairo of the first commercial flight to Egypt from Tehran in three decades. Before that first load of Iranian tourists arrived, Salafists successfully lobbied the Ministry of Tourism to ban Iranians from Cairo �� which is home to many venerated Shiite shrines — and steer them south to Luxor and Aswan.

Ahmed Rassem Nafees, a Shiite community leader, points out the irony of Egypt banning the Iranians from Cairo and Al-Hussein — turning away a potential flood of religious pilgrims at a time when Egypt’s vital tourism industry is at rock bottom.

Nafees, a professor at Mansoura University medical school, said that among all the religious minorities, the Shiites produce a particularly visceral reaction among some Salafists. In the context of the regional Sunni-Shiite struggle, Nafees said ultra-conservative Sunnis fear Shiite belief once again gaining a foothold in Egypt. “They don’t like the Christians, but they’re not scared of them,” he said. “They’re terrified [of the Shiites] because they know Egypt used to be a Shiite country.”

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Some of that intense Salafist antipathy was on display in the wake of the Ashura mosque closure. Adel Nasser, chairman of the Salafi Dawa group, praised the Ministry’s of Religious Endowments’ decision, telling Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that the unnecessary closure of a house of worship is “a small act of corruption to prevent a bigger one – that is allowing Shiites to practice their rituals, which are unaccepted by Sunnis on their land.” He added, “Egypt is Sunni and will never be Shiite.”

Not all Salafists feel as strongly, of course. But when Shiites are concerned, the loudest and most strident Salafist voices tend to hold sway both before and after Morsi’s downfall. The Morsi era concluded with a violent low-point for the Shiite minority. Ten days before Morsi was ousted, a mob formed in the village of Abu Musallem, just outside of Cairo, killing four Shiite residents, including a prominent sheikh. The exact spark that set off the assaults remains unclear, but area residents told the local media that local Salafist shiekhs had been railing against the village’s Shiite residents for weeks. The assault came shortly after Morsi appeared at a raucous rally in support of the Syrian resistance where he shared the stage with Salafist preachers who vilified Shiites. Six people have been arrested for their part in the attacks.

But Morsi’s downfall doesn’t seem to have helped conditions for Egypt’s Shiites that much. After his ousting in a popularly-backed July 3 coup, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates replaced Qatar as Egypt’s primary regional patrons. But like Qatar, both countries are deeply suspicious of neighboring Iran — a Shiite theocracy — and what they see as regional ambitions among the wider Shiite community.

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Nafees predicted gloomy times for his community. While Egypt’s long-suffering 10% minority Coptic Christians are looking forward to unprecedented freedoms from the still-in-progress constitution, he doesn’t expect nearly the same sort of protections or rights for his own people. If anything he fears they have become low-hanging fruit for bigots in a country already bubbling with sectarian tensions.

“We have become the new scapegoat,” he said. “Now that the Brotherhood is gone, I think things will get better for the Christians and other minorities. But not for us.”

But despite the Ashura setback, there may be some cause for Shiite optimism. The Abu Mussalem killings horrified most Egyptians and may have increased sympathy for the Shiites among other Egyptians. A senior official at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the most respected seat of Sunni Muslim thought, said he regretted the way the Ashura issue was handled. “It was probably best for public safety,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. “But we will have to work on this. They’re Muslims and they have a right to worship. It’s clear we have a lot of work to do on this issue in particular.”

Early reports from the constitutional committee indicate strong support for wide-ranging language that grants full right to worship to all faiths. “Freedom of worship is very important to us, and to me personally,” said Mohammed Abla, a famous painter and member of the “Committee of 50” currently drafting the constitution. Abla, a Sunni and a member of the rights and freedoms subcommittee, said that one of the definite changes coming in the next constitution is the elimination of an Ottoman Empire-era law that remained in practice through the Mubarak years requiring presidential approval for any church construction or renovation—a sign of the drafters’ supposedly more benign, open-minded views regarding religion.

But whatever the final language in the constitution, any law will have to be properly acknowledged and enforced by authorities who are subject to the same social pressures that led to the Ashura closure decision. Hashimi and his fellow Shiites might have to wait until next Ashura to test the waters of tolerance once again.

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