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EGYPT: Shia Hope for New Chapter

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Apr 9 2011 (IPS) - The political currents that sweep across the Middle East often surge out of Iran, form treacherous eddies in Lebanon and Iraq, then slam into the front door of Ahmad Rasem El-Nafis’ apartment in the northern Egyptian city of Mansoura.

The university professor and Islamic scholar was arrested three times, banned from travelling, and subject to continuous harassment by Egyptian state security during the 30-year rule of deposed president Hosni Mubarak. His crime, he says, was his belief in Shia doctrine.

“It’s astonishing that the Egyptian government claimed to be tolerant of religions while at the same time it put pressure on Shia by threatening them, banning their books and putting them in prison,” El-Nafis told IPS.

Like all Shia in Egypt, he hopes Mubarak’s ouster will herald a new era of respect and tolerance for religious minorities.

“Under Mubarak, if you were Shia in Egypt you had to take care in your life and never join any political parties or express your ideas,” he says. “Since the revolution (two months ago) there has been a general improvement, not just for Shia, but for all Egyptians.”

Shia constitute an estimated one percent of Egypt’s predominantly Sunni Muslim population, which in turn constitutes about 90 percent of the country’s 82 million inhabitants. Their true number is difficult to know with certainty, as many Shia are believed to observe takiyya, the practice of hiding one’s sectarian identity in order to avoid persecution.

El-Nafis has never hidden his creed. Although he was born and raised a Sunni, the 58-year-old scholar says he converted to Shiism some 25 years ago after being drawn to the sect’s principles, particularly its emphasis on innovative interpretation of the scriptures.

“Islam is not as divided as some would like us to believe,” he says. “It is very difficult for people to tell who is a Shia and who is a Sunni, as the two doctrines share many ideas.”

Both sects agree on the basic tenets of Islam and share the same holy book, the Qu’ran. The main schism lies in their differing views on the rightful successor of Prophet Mohammed. Shia believe he should have been succeeded by his cousin Ali rather than his companion Abu Bakr, as Sunnis contend.

Al-Azhar, the highest institution in Sunni Islam, recognises Shia as a legitimate branch of Islam. The Mubarak regime, however, viewed the sect’s adherents with suspicion and questioned their loyalty to the state.

“The Mubarak government feared that Shia were loyal to Iran, the stronghold of Shia power,” explains Ishaak Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). “(Discrimination against) Shia should be seen in the context of relations between Egypt and Iran.”

The two regional powers have a history of bad blood. Iran severed relations with Egypt after Cairo signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979 and provided asylum to the deposed Iranian shah, Mohamed Reza Pahlawi. Animosity increased when Egypt backed Iraq in its war with Iran from 1980 to 1988.

Egypt and other Sunni-ruled Arab countries are fearful of Iran’s growing influence in the region. Mubarak previously accused Tehran of attempting to destabilise Arab regimes through proxy groups, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah.

While analysts suspect there may be some truth to the allegation, they say sweeping assumptions have unfairly vilified Egypt’s Shia, the vast majority of whom have no connection with foreign political groups.

Hundreds of Shia were arrested during the latter half of the Mubarak era. Detainees were often labelled as terrorist suspects and held on spurious charges.

Many former detainees claim Egyptian security officers showed little interest in their alleged political activities, questioning them instead on their religious practices. Transcripts of their interrogations were leaked to local media outlets, presumably to portray Shia doctrine as blasphemy and turn public opinion against them.

Last September, Egyptian security forces arrested a group of 12 Egyptian and foreign Shia accused of plotting to overthrow the regime, falsifying the Qu’ran and insulting the companions of Prophet Mohammed. Prosecutors submitted as evidence the suspects’ confession admitting that they do not recognise the caliphs that followed Prophet Mohammed.

“This is Shia doctrine,” says Ibrahim. “The police arrested these men for what they believe, not for anything they did.”

State prosecutors eventually dropped the case for lack of evidence.

Analysts say persecution of Shia in Egypt tends to rise and fall according to Iran’s regional influence. Arrests increased after Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006, which garnered widespread local support for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

“Egyptians are very susceptible to Shia beliefs,” explains a sermon leader at a mosque in Cairo’s Islamic quarter. “Shia Islam has a long history in our country and many mosques and tombs are associated with (revered Shia figures). Al-Azhar itself was founded by the Shia Fatimids. Given this, some people worry that Shiism could spread very easily among the majority Sunni population.”

Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, director of Sawasya Centre for Human Rights, dismisses fears expressed in the yellow press that a “Shia awakening” could sow the seeds of sectarian strife in Egypt, as has happened in Iraq.

“There is no need to dictate what type of Islam people should adhere to,” he says. “Over 99 percent of the Muslim population here is Sunni, so there is no threat that Egypt will be overrun by Shia.”

Egypt-Iran relations have warmed since Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11, and senior officials on both sides have hinted at a resumption of diplomatic relations. Egypt’s newly-appointed foreign minister Nabil El-Arabi recently announced that his country was ready to “open a new page” with Iran. Tehran has welcomed the overture.

Normalisation with Iran “would undoubtedly help improve” the image of Shia in Egypt, says Abdel Maqsoud. It could also reduce the bad press.

While vestiges of the old authoritarian regime remain, Mubarak’s departure has lifted the cloud of oppression over Shia in Egypt. The new atmosphere of freedom appears to be prompting the sect’s adherents to abandon their cloak of takiyya.

“Since the revolution I’ve received many communications from Shia converts,” says El-Nafis. “This never happened before because our phones were tapped, and whenever state security learnt that someone was Shia they would send security agents to harass or intimidate them.”

One clear sign that El-Nafis believes Egypt has embarked on a new era of openness: he and other Shia are now openly involved in the formation of a broad-based political party.

That, he admits, would have been unthinkable during Mubarak’s rule.

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