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.

SHUTTERSTOCK / MONKEY BUSINESS IMAGES
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The price of accessing higher education

Should young people from low income backgrounds abandon higher education, or do they need more support to access it? 

The determination of over 400,000 young people to go into higher education (HE) every year, despite England having the most expensive HE system in the world, and particularly the determination of over 20,000 young people from low income backgrounds to progress to HE should be celebrated. Regrettably, there are many in the media and politics that are keen to argue that we have too many students and HE is not worth the time or expense.

These views stem partly from the result of high levels of student debt, and changing graduate employment markets appearing to diminish the payoff from a degree. It is not just economics though; it is partly a product of a generational gap. Older graduates appear to find it hard to come to terms with more people, and people from dissimilar backgrounds to theirs, getting degrees.  Such unease is personified by Frank Field, a veteran of many great causes, using statistics showing over 20 per cent of graduates early in their working lives are earning less than apprentices to make a case against HE participation. In fact, the same statistics show that for the vast majority a degree makes a better investment than an apprenticeship. This is exactly what the majority of young people believe. Not only does it make a better financial investment, it is also the route into careers that young people want to pursue for reasons other than money.

This failure of older "generations" (mainly politics and media graduates) to connect with young people’s ambitions has now, via Labour's surprising near win in June, propelled the question of student finance back into the spotlight. The balance between state and individual investment in higher education is suddenly up for debate again. It is time, however, for a much wider discussion than one only focussed on the cost of HE. We must start by recognising the worth and value of HE, especially in the context of a labour market where the nature of many future jobs is being rendered increasingly uncertain by technology. The twisting of the facts to continually question the worth of HE by many older graduates does most damage not to the allegedly over-paid Vice Chancellors, but the futures of the very groups that they purport to be most concerned for: those from low income groups most at risk from an uncertain future labour market.

While the attacks on HE are ongoing, the majority of parents from higher income backgrounds are quietly going to greater and greater lengths to secure the futures of their children – recent research from the Sutton Trust showed that in London nearly half of all pupils have received private tuition. It is naive in the extreme to suggest that they are doing this so their children can progress into anything other than higher education. It is fundamental that we try and close the social background gap in HE participation if we wish to see a labour market in which better jobs, regardless of their definition, are more equally distributed across the population. Doing this requires a national discussion that is not constrained by cost, but also looks at what schools, higher education providers and employers can do to target support at young people from low income backgrounds, and the relative contributions that universities, newer HE providers and further education colleges should make. The higher education problem is not too many students; it is too few from the millions of families on average incomes and below.

Dr. Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON). NEON are partnering with the New Statesman to deliver a fringe event at this year's Conservative party conference: ‘Sustainable Access: the Future of Higher Education in Britain’ on the Monday 2nd October 2017 from 16:30-17:30pm.