Egypt Shiite killing puts sectarian strife on political radar

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When an Egyptian Salafist recently described the presence of Shiites in Egypt as “more dangerous than naked women,” a cautious, yet sardonic wave of anger from both his supporters and critics was immediately unleashed.

The man who initiated that wave was Tharwat Attallah, a member of the ultra-conservative Salafi Nour Party.

Speaking at a Shura Council cultural committee meeting, he had made the comment as part of a discussion on the effects of an Iranian tourist influx in Egypt, before adding: “They [Shiites] are a danger to Egypt’s national security; Egyptians could be deceived into [converting to] Shiism, giving it a chance to spread in Egypt.”

While Attalah made the remarks in May, at the height of Egypt’s move to remedy frayed diplomatic ties with Shiite-majority Iran, it came at the beginnings of a surge in confrontational anti-Shiite sentiment in the country. What followed was a series of Salafist protests against allowing Shiite Iranians to visit Egypt. It was about to get much worse.

I blame the presidency, the government’s ministers and the police for this horrific attack on the Shiite community.

Bahaa Anwar, Spokesman for Egypt’s Shiite minority

On Sunday night, in a village south of Cairo, four Shiite Egyptians were dragged to death by a mob of hardline Islamists who were reportedly angered at the Shiites’ recent attempt to promote their creed in a Sunni-majority village.

The mob was “motivated by Salafists,” Bahaa Anwar, spokesman for Egypt’s Shiite minority, told Al Arabiya English on Monday.

The attack began as hundreds of people gathered to storm the house of a Shiite resident in the village of Abu Mussalem, dragging out those inside and beating them. The group believed that a leading Shiite cleric, Hassan Shehata, was inside.

Residents filmed the attack and exchanged mobile phone video clips and pictures with each other, describing how “proud” they were of the lynching, according to local reports.

A video of the attack was posted on YouTube, in which the mob can be heard shouting Shehata’s name in anger and images of bloody violence are seen.

“Shehata had been attending a religious ceremony at the house of one resident,” Shiite resident Diaa Moharram told AFP news agency in tears.

Despite initially conflicting reports over whether Shehata was killed, Anwar confirmed to Al Arabiya English that Shehata and two of his brothers were among those killed.

Abu Mussalem is home to roughly 40 Shiite families, said Anwar. There are believed to be around 750,000 Shiites out of the country’s 85 million population, Reuters news agency reports, although there are no official figures.

Sunnis have traditionally opposed Shiism, which teaches that many of the Prophet Mohammed’s companions revered by Sunnis had usurped power from his “rightful successor” and cousin, Ali.

Blaming the presidency

Speaking out after the attack, Anwar condemned the presidency and accused police of arriving on the scene “too late” and failing to take action against the assailants or even the anti-Shiite sentiment that had risen in the village in recent weeks.

“I blame the presidency, the government’s ministers and the police for this horrific attack on the Shiite community.”

“President Mohammed Mursi offers Egyptian Shiites as a scapegoat to Salafists so that they will back him,” in comments unmasking a sectarian rift ensnared in politicized hostility.

In blunt remarks this month by Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood (MB), from which Mursi hails, the group openly blamed Shiites for “creating religious strife throughout Islam’s history,” local press reported MB spokesman Ahmed Aref as saying.

“Throughout history, Sunnis have never been involved in starting a sectarian war,” he said, while announcing that the MB would join a call by Sunni clerics for jihad in the crisis-torn Syria, a fight against the government of President Bashar al-Assad and its Shiite allies.

In light of the rhetoric against Shiites, the Egyptian presidency’s recent moves to promote rapprochement with Iran, both a key Assad ally and a bastion of Shiite political power, seemed jarring.

Following the killings, which reportedly also left 30 Shiites injured, Anwar complained of mistreatment of Shiites during a Syria solidarity conference attended by Mursi last week.

“Salafist sheikhs insulted Shiites and incited hate against those Egyptian Shiite citizens,” he said, adding that President Mursi did not refute the alleged incitement.

Meanwhile, sectarianism in the country continues to enter the political spotlight.

“I believe that since the change of regime in Egypt, Salafists have been allowed a space to implement their desire for a ‘pure, Islamic society’ that excludes not only Shiite but other religious minorities as well,” says Lina Beydoun, an expert at Brookings on minority rights in the Middle East at the Doha-based Brookings Institute.

And while many reports placed blame on Salafist mobilization of the mob, the video showing crowds of village residents dragging the Shiites has prompted questions.

“I’m not sure it is hardline Salafists, as the YouTube clip shows,” Omar Ashour, a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics and security studies at the University of Exeter, told Al Arabiya.

“It was probably local villagers believing in the “heresy” of Shiites. The problem is bigger than the Salafist trend. Their rhetoric did contribute to the rising anti-Shiite sentiments. But what did contribute more is the actions of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria, where the daily news coverage shows mass-murders committed by Shiite- and Alwaite-dominated militias and the Syrian refugees in Egyptian towns and villages telling their hosts their horrific experiences.,” said Ashour.

Living in fear

“Egyptian Shiites cannot possibly be seen as a threat to Egypt. They are as nationalistic as any other Egyptian. The main problem is with how they have been misrepresented over the years in religious media by members of extremist ideologies.

“At the same time, Egyptian Shiites have resorted to opening up relations with Iranians largely because they face discrimination in the employment sector in Egypt. The issue is economic, not political, and many Egyptian Shiites are secularists,” Beydoun added.

Although Articles 43 and 45 of the new constitution provides for freedom of belief and the practice of religious rights, Shiites have faced obstacles in practicing their faith in public or even in private Shiite Islamic centres or “Husainiyyas.”

“Since [former president] Hosni Mubarak, they have not have not been allowed their own places of worship. They usually congregate in homes or ‘secret’ places, denying them their right to religious expression,” said Beydoun.

In November 2012, Shiites were prevented by security forces from entering Cairo’s Al-Hussein mosque to commemorate Ashura, the occasion on which Shiite Muslims commemorate the killing of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

During the incident, Al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest Islamic authority issued a statement warning against staging any celebrations in the mosque, saying that Ashura would only be celebrated through fasting and praying, adding that Egypt and Sunnis refuse any form of "heresy that will only cause sectarian conflict."

“Shiites do not feel safe in Egypt. They have been detained, arrested, expelled from school or threatened because of their faith,” Beydoun said.

Joining June 30 protests

Now, Anwar says Shiites in the country can take on a more oppositional role against the Mursi government.

“All of Egypt’s Shiites will now participate in the June 30 protests,” said Anwar, in reference to a nationwide campaign to stage anti-Mursi demonstrations at the end of the month, a date which marks the president’s first anniversary in power.

Earlier this month, Anwar had said in a statement that more than 100,000 Egyptian Shiites had signed up to the “Tamarod” (rebellion) petition, which is organizing the June 30 protests and calling for early presidential elections.

“Supporting the Tamarod campaign put the Shiites clearly in the anti-Morsi camp, and this is a politicized position that is costing the Egyptian Shiites a lot in this ongoing battle between Islamists and non-Islamists,” Beydoun said.

“Everyone is politicized now in Egypt and the Shiites as persecuted minority in the country, are not an exception,” said Ashour.

In a statement on Monday, the president’s office said in response to the mob killings that “the state will not be lenient with anyone who tampers with Egypt’s security or the unity of its people,” according to the state news agency.

Prime Minister Hisham Qandil also condemned the incident as contradicting all “religious doctrines.”

Religious scholars and independent activists have also spoken out.

"Whatever our differences with the Shiites... what took place in the village of Abu al-Nimras is a heinous crime,” Yemeni scholar Habib 'Ali al-Jifri, who appears in primetime Islamic Egypt-based TV programs, wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday night.

“It's an expected result of the wrong mobilization … [The attack] is also an extreme abuse of the Sunni teachings,” Jifri added.

Meanwhile, Egyptians against Religious Discrimination, an independent group fighting religious sectarianism in Egypt, denounced what it described as a series of sectarian crimes under the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule.

Mursi’s rule “opened the door for sectarian strife between Egyptians,” claimed the statement, according to Egyptian news site Ahram Online.

On Monday evening, it was reported that Giza prosecutors ordered the arrest of 15 people implicated in the Shiite killings. While on Tuesday, security forces arrested eight people in connection with the killings.

"Security efforts have been increased to find the rest of the perpetrators after they fled their homes," a security official told the national MENA news agency.

But whether or not the arrests can stem sectarian anxieties, it appears the rift between Islamists and non-Islamists may linger against a backdrop of political angst and an overshadowing narrative of hate.

The anti-Shiite Salafist rhetoric in recent months “did not help," said Ashour, "it added fuel to the fire of stereotyping and acting out collective punishment.”

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