Wrote this a few weeks ago, but forgot about it in the events following–posting anyway.
Sectarianism is not new to Egypt and in the post-revolution years, attacks on Christians have become increasingly common and violent. As the rule of the law and authority of the police have become memories of the Mubarak days, people have started to act out their beliefs and impulses into society. Sectarian violence, lynchings, mob raping, and flagrant displays of lawlessness have become recurrent themes in Egypt’s recent history.
This time, the victims were Muslims, Shia Muslims–known commonly in Egypt as ‘kafara’ (infidel)–in the village of of Zawayet Abu Musalam, in Giza, Cairo’s neighboring city. Sheikh Hassan Shehata, a 66-year-old prominent Shia cleric, was visiting a family in the village when a mob began to form around the home he was in. Believing that Shehata was spreading the Shia faith, they threatened to burn down the home. Five homes were burned that day leaving five dead including Cleric Shehata. Graphic footage of the lynching shows men dragging him and others down the dirt road by ropes, beating him with sticks, kicking him, and in some cases, stabbing him. Many are shocked at such violence against fellow Muslims, but to the estimate three million Shia in Egypt, this is just a realization of a long-held fear.
Shiism, in Egypt, dates back to as early as 969 AD when the Fatimid Dynasty founded Cairo as the new capital in Egypt. The society was predominantly Shia until after the fall of the Fatimids when people began to convert to Sunni Islam, now the mainstream branch of Islam in Egypt. Although the ties to Shiism is deeply weaved into the very architecture of Cairo and the foundations of Al-Azhar Mosque, today most Egyptians know very little of the Shiites in Egypt. However, Shiites in Egypt have been under constant attack or fear of it from both the political and social level. In 2009, over 300 Shiites were arrested, including the Cleric Hassan Shehata, accused of “undermining Egyptian national security and of showing contempt to one of the heavenly religions.”
In two different brands of Islam, members of both sects have struggled, and in many cases failed, to live at peace with each other throughout the Middle East. Decades of tensions and violence have, in cases like Lebanon and Syria, prevented long lasting stability. Today, Syria’s civil war has been marked a sectarian war as the rift between the Sunni and the Shiite Muslims has grown profoundly wide. The Syrian war however, has not been contained to within its borders, but has drawn in members of the Shiite Hezbollah army from Lebanon, and Iranian (also a predominantly Shiite nation) support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
This civil war and growing conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in the Levant, while directly influencing Lebanon and other bordering countries, has encouraged bolder rhetoric from the radical Salafi Islamists in Egypt. Activist Hazem Barakat, an eye witness of the lynching, reports to Mosireen that as recently as three weeks ago sermons began spreading incitement at his local mosque. Sheikh Maher Bashtily spoke of how the Shia were a cabal and that they curse the companions of the Prophet Mohamed. Barakat continued to say that only two hours after the sermon, the Salafi Call group led a protest calling those that insult the companions of the Prophet heretics.
While many Salafi groups have been promoting this type of sectarian hatred at a local level, even before the revolution in 2011, it grew more pronounced in last weeks events when President Mohamed Morsi attended and spoke at an all Islamist ‘Support for Syria’ Conference at the Cairo stadium where he announced cutting all ties with Bashar al-Assad. The message out of this conference were direct calls to jihad (martyrdom) either through the people’s money, their souls, or their words. Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, the Vice President of Islamic Legitimate Body of Rights and Reform, in his sermon to the crowd of at least 200,000 called for jihad in order to aid and assist the Syrian revolution. Through his sermon, he recalled words from the Hadith (9:41) calling the people to be soldiers in the Levant to protect Syria from leaving the fold of Sunni Islam. He closed his sermon directly addressing President Morsi to rid himself of those who curse the Prophet Mohamed and his companions.
While, President Morsi did not explicitly support these calls to jihad, he clearly denounced Hezbollah and continuously highlighted the sectarian divide in Syria. In Amnesty International’s response to these events, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said, “By not disassociating himself and his government from the hatred and incitement against Shias expressed during an event [‘Support for Syria’ Conference] at which he was a speaker, President Morsi failed to signal that attacks against Shi’a Muslims will not be tolerated.” Naturally, many speculations were made as to whether the president had intended to call for global jihad or if he was trying to gain international support from the Gulf countries, specifically Qatar and Saudi Arabia. On June 24, only nine days after the conference, news broke that Saudi Arabia would lend $500 million to Egypt.
However, what has been surprising, was the immediate translation of this nonetheless inexplicit call to jihad by the Egyptian president to society. Less than two weeks after this conference, five Shiites were killed by a mob attack led by Salafis. It is doubtful that this was a planned or premeditated attack but the correlation to the Presidency’s political stance is hard to ignore.
As required, the President issued a statement of condemnation of the lynching in Giza stating that it is contradiction to the nature of Egyptians who are “tolerant and respectful…” and “who are well known for their moderateness.” The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in their statement denied Islamists as the perpetrators stating that, “Islam does not accept violation of the sanctity of individuals regardless of their religion or affiliation.”
His bold move at the Cairo stadium has unfortunately placed him in a conundrum. As June 30 approaches, the public has continually grown more outraged by events in Egypt, including this lynching despite the Egyptian’s general disdain of Shia Islam. Additionally, extreme gas shortages and continued electricity cuts are just some of the many struggles the Egyptian people are facing. Now, as clashes continue throughout Egypt in response to recent governor assignments, Morsi is in dire need of whatever support he can get, including the Islamists. But this comes at a cost, and this time it was the lives of a prominent Shia leader and four of his followers.
Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud asked the crowd if they would support their brothers in Syria or not, a test for all Muslims to protect the sunna. The response heard was clearly yes but whether this will become a heightened risk and danger for Shia in Egypt seems to be dictated by how firm Morsi and his government will respond to this first of a kind attack against Shia Muslims.
Photo: Muhammad Ezzat