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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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred