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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Corbyn's supporters loved his principles. But he ditched them in the EU campaign

Jeremy Corbyn never wanted Remain to win, and every gutless performance showed that. Labour voters deserve better. 

“A good and decent man but he is not a leader. That is the problem.” This was just-sacked Hilary Benn’s verdict on Jeremy Corbyn, and he’s two-thirds right. Corbyn is not a leader, and if that wasn’t obvious before the referendum campaign, it should be now. If the Vice documentary didn’t convince you that Corbyn is a man who cannot lead – marked by both insubstantiality and intransigence, both appalling presentation and mortal vanity – then surely his botched efforts for Remain must have.

But so what. Even Corbyn’s greatest supporters don’t rate him as a statesman. They like him because he believes in something. Not just something (after all, Farage believes in something: he believes in a bleached white endless village fete with rifle-toting freemen at the gates) but the right things. Socialist things. Non-Blairite things. The things they believe in. And the one thing that the EU referendum campaign should absolutely put the lie to is any image of Corbyn as a politician of principle – or one who shares his party’s values.

He never supported Remain. He never wanted Remain to win, and every gutless performance showed that. Watching his big centrepiece speech, anyone not explicitly informed that Labour was pro-Remain would have come away with the impression that the EU was a corrupt conglomerate that we’re better off out of. He dedicated more time to attacking the institution he was supposed to be defending, than he did to taking apart his ostensive opposition. And that’s because Leave weren’t his opposition, not really. He has long wanted out of the EU, and he got out.

It is neither good nor decent to lead a bad campaign for a cause you don’t believe in. I don’t think a more committed Corbyn could have swung it for Remain – Labour voters were firmly for Remain, despite his feeble efforts – but giving a serious, passionate account of what what the EU has done for us would at least have established some opposition to the Ukip/Tory carve-up of the nation. Now, there is nothing. No sound, no fury and no party to speak for the half the nation that didn’t want out, or the stragglers who are belatedly realising what out is going to mean.

At a vigil for Jo Cox last Saturday, a Corbyn supporter told me that she hoped the Labour party would now unify behind its leader. It was a noble sentiment, but an entirely misplaced one when the person we are supposed to get behind was busily undermining the cause his members were working for. Corbyn supporters should know this: he has failed you, and will continue to fail you as long as he is party leader.

The longer he stays in office, the further Labour drifts from ever being able to exercise power. The further Labour drifts from power, the more utterly hopeless the prospects for all the things you hoped he would accomplish. He will never end austerity. He will never speak to the nation’s disenfranchised. He will achieve nothing beyond grinding Labour ever further into smallness and irrelevance.

Corbyn does not care about winning, because he does not understand the consequences of losing. That was true of the referendum, and it’s true of his attitude to politics in general. Corbyn isn’t an alternative to right-wing hegemony, he’s a relic – happy to sit in a glass case like a saint’s dead and holy hand, transported from one rapturous crowd of true believers to another, but somehow never able to pull off the miracles he’s credited with.

If you believe the Labour party needs to be more than a rest home for embittered idealists – if you believe the working class must have a political party – if you believe that the job of opposing the government cannot be left to Ukip – if you believe that Britain is better than racism and insularity, and will vote against those vicious principles when given a reason to; if you believe any of those things, then Corbyn must go. Not just because he’s ineffectual, but because he’s untrustworthy too.

Some politicians can get away with being liars. There is a kind of anti-politics that is its own exemplum, whose representatives tell voters that all politicians are on the make, and then prove it by being on the make themselves and posing as the only honest apples in the whole bad barrel. That’s good enough for the right-wing populists who will take us out of Europe but it is not, it never has been, what the Labour Party is. Labour needs better than Corbyn, and the country that needs Labour must not be failed again.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.