The plight of Egypt’s forgotten Shia minority

Even after the historic election, this marginalised minority risk daily persecution and victimisation because of their beliefs.

Sitting cross-legged on the threadbare sofa in his living room, Abu Hasan gestures to the bare walls behind him, apologising for the sparseness of his home. He breathlessly explains that himself, his wife, and their three children had to flee their previous apartment here in Alexandria only a few days ago after a neighbour posted a note under their door threatening to kills them.

“This is third time we have had to move in four years,” he says, offering me a plate of steaming bamiye (okra).

Abu Hasan and his family are Shia – a small and marginalised minority in predominantly Sunni Egypt. He says that they face daily persecution and victimisation because of their beliefs.

Since Mohammed Morsi was declared President of Egypt, there has been growing speculation about what the future of Egypt's Coptic minority will be under an Islamist government, but little has been said about the even smaller (and arguably equally threatened) Shia community. In the run up to the elections, I spent time in both Cairo and Alexandria speaking to the Egyptian Shia community and gauging their response to the likelihood of a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The schism between Sunni and Shia Islam dates back to the death of the Prophet Muhammed in AD 632, but the historical nature of the split does little to lessen the reality of Shias living and worshiping in Egypt. Although there are no official statistics about the number of Shia in Egypt, it has been estimated that they constitute roughly one per cent of the population: around one million people. Because of their relative obscurity, and the fact they tend to shy away from public or political activism, they are often overlooked in discussions about Egypt’s religious minorities.

“There are no Shia in Egypt, we are a Sunni country,” said one woman I spoke to outside Cairo’s Al Hussein mosque.

Shias say that they are ostracised and persecuted by Sunnis, and that they are afraid to publicly admit their confessional status since they believe it will only invite more prejudice. The Mubarak regime was especially intolerant towards Shias, and they were regularly arrested and interrogated during his 30-year reign. In 2009, more than 300 Shias were imprisoned by state security without official justification.

“Before the revolution, the situation of Shia was critical in Egypt, but since the revolution we have had a light margin of freedom,” Sayed Gamal Hashemi, a friend of Abu Hasan, tells me over a cup of heavily-sweetened tea.

But when asked whether Shias or Christians have more rights in post-revolutionary Egypt, Hashemi is quick to answer: “Christians,” he says, “of course.”

Misinterpretation and confusion abound among both Sunni and Shia communities, making reconciliation or acceptance between them an increasingly challenging task. One young Sunni student, who asked not to be named, claimed that Shia were “kufar” (infidels) because they didn’t follow the prophet Muhammed; while a Shia man (who also asked to remain anonymous) believed that it is “halal” (religiously ordained) for Sunni to kill Shia. Neither claims are true, but they reflect the extent of mistrust between the two communities.

Despite this, the number of Shia in Egypt seems to be growing, and there have been several cases of Sunnis converting to Shiism. Mahmoud Jabr, one such convert and the Secretary General of Egypt’s Hizb-ut-Tahreer (Liberation Party) – one of many grassroots political parties that have sprung up since the revolution – says he had his passport confiscated by the Mubarak regime because of his activism.

“The Egyptian constitution will never accept a Shia party,” he says, “the media misrepresent us.”

The “politicisation” of the Sunni-Shia divide through the proxies of Iran and Saudi Arabia is widespread in Egyptian society, Jabr claims, when in reality the vast majority of Egyptian Shia have no personal or political ties to the Islamic Republic. And indeed, when I approached the president of Cairo’s Al Hussein mosque – where more than 200 Shia were forcibly prevented from celebrating Ashura in December 2011 – his viewpoint is surprisingly succinct:

“If they want to practice their rituals, then they should go back to their own country,” he states, ignoring the fact that most Egyptian Shias are exactly that: Egyptian.

And yet Egypt remains a country with strong Shia ties. The Fatimid dynasty, who ruled Egypt from AD 969 - 1171 and founded the city of Cairo, were exclusively Shia. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Fatimids that Egyptians began to convert to the Sunna, and the cultural legacy of Ahl al-Beit (descendants of the Prophet Muhammed, literally ‘people of the house’) remains strong even today. No further testament needs to be made to the strength of Egyptians reverence for the Ahl al-Beit than the abundance of shrines and mosques dedicated to Hussein, Hasan, Zainab, Ali, and other Shia imams.

But there are concerns among the Shias I spoke to that the rise of Islamist movements in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, especially the omnipresence of the Muslim Brotherhood, will result in even fewer rights for their community.

Shias might not face the same extent of persecution as the more visible Coptic minority, but it was evident from the people I spoke to that they are equally not tolerated by the more extreme factions in Egyptian society.

“We cannot have Shias in our mosque because of their extremist views,” said the head of Alexandria’s Al-Fattah mosque, a stronghold for fundamentalist Salafis.

When asked if he would support the construction of a Shia mosque to allow Shias to pray in their own space, he looks at me wide-eyed, as if surprised by the question.

“No.”

It is a little word, but it says so much about the current state of Egypt, and about the country’s forgotten minority.

Additional reporting by Farah Souames.

Egyptian presidential guards stand outside Cairo's Al-Azhar mosque. Photograph: Getty Images

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.