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Egypt has securitised Shi’ism, but Salafism arguably poses the greater threat

March 13, 2020 at 6:03 pm

A picture taken during a guided tour organised by the Egyptian State Information Service on November 20, 2019, shows inmates receiving medical treatment at the clinic of Borg el-Arab prison near the Egyptian city of Alexandria [MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images]

Last month, courts in Egypt ruled in favour of closing down local Shia TV channels and websites. Despite a previous decision to annul the verdict, it was overturned by the state council judiciary. Domestic internet service providers (ISPs) are now ordered to restrict websites affiliated with Shia Islam, including news sites. The ruling was welcomed by Egypt’s Salafists who are known to hold hostile views of the Shia and perceive the presence of their media as attempts by Iran to spread Shi’ism in the Arab world’s most populated country. “Shia Islam poses a great danger to Egypt and its people,” one Salafist activist is quoted as saying in response to the verdict.

In spite of there being no Egyptian legislation, nor constitutional article prohibiting the promotion of Shia ideology or prohibiting the sect itself, the case was brought by prominent Egyptian lawyer Samir Sabri, who accused the Shia channels and websites of intentionally seeking to subvert the state. “The presence of these channels and sites has so many negative effects on Egypt,” he said. “They pose a real danger to Egypt’s religious and cultural identity.”

However, it can be argued that the greater security threat posed to Egyptian society is less the propagation of Shia beliefs, than certain expressions of Salafism, the sect that was promoted by Saudi Arabia after concern about Iran’s growing influence in the region. Although the Salafist trend across North Africa predates Gulf influence, many groups remain a conduit for Saudi influence.

Salafism is an ultra-orthodox interpretation of the majority Sunni sect of Islam, which seeks a return to a “pure” form of the faith, but it is not monolithic; there are different strands ranging from moderate to extreme, from quietist to political and even militant. It is the intolerant so-called Takfiri Salafism which has been behind years of campaigning against the spread of Shi’ism in Egypt, including the lobbying of the state to crack down on Egyptian Shia and hate speech and anti-Shia rhetoric from Salafi clerics. It has been claimed that “two years of hate speech” against the Shia of Egypt led to an infamous incident in 2013, when a sectarian mob spurred on by a Salafi shaikh lynched four Shia during a private religious gathering. Among the victims was a prominent scholar and former Sunni imam, Hasan Shahhata; the police just stood by.

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A report by Human Rights Watch on the incident not only placed the blame on Salafi preachers, but also Muslim Brotherhood members as well as officials at Al-Azhar University, the top seat of Islamic learning and religious authority in Egypt, despite a 1959 fatwa (religious opinion) from the institution recognising the legitimacy of the Jafaari school of jurisprudence along with the four mainstream Sunni schools. It is also worth noting that Al-Azhar and even Cairo itself were originally established by the Ismaili Shia Fatimid dynasty that ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171 AD. The name of the university was derived from the title of one of the daughters of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), Fatimah Al-Zahra (“The Luminous”).

No official figures exist for the number of Egypt’s Shia minority, but estimates suggest that there are as many as two million. However, many conceal their faith under the guise of Sufism, which is traditionally practised in Egypt and, like the Shia, is known for commemorating important birthdays known as mawlid and visiting shrines dedicated to members of the Prophet’s family. It is perhaps why is has been stated that, “Egypt is Sunni by sect, but Shia by temperament.”

However, the intolerance of religious minorities is said to have been exacerbated under the late President Mohamed Morsi, whom Amnesty accused of not doing enough to clamp down on anti-Shia rhetoric, although he was the first Egyptian head of state to visit Iran since 1979, and his election was hailed by Iran as part of a regional “Islamic awakening”. Under Morsi’s predecessor, the late Hosni Mubarak, the Shia were detained arbitrarily under the decades-old emergency law. This was, ironically, implemented following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, who Mubarak succeeded, and sanctioned by a “fatwa” by the so-called “Blind Shaikh”, Salafi cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman.

After the ousting of Mubarak in 2011, new Salafi political parties began to emerge such as the Nour Party which coincided with regional, polarising conflicts like that in Syria. As such, Salafis in Egypt “have instrumentally used the spectre of Shi’ism in their politico-religious rhetoric to further their political ends.” One Nour Party MP once told a Shura Council meeting discussing the effects of Iranian tourism on Egyptian society that, “The Shia are more dangerous than naked [women],” and cited the fear of proselytisation.

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The Saudi and UAE-backed military coup led by current President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in 2013 outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood but appears to tolerate Egypt’s Salafists. The Nour Party supported Sisi and backed his second term. That should come as no surprise, since Saudi Arabia funds Salafi charities, mosques, websites, TV channels and, indeed, the Nour Party itself, the political arm of the Salafi Call movement which advocates pro-Saudi policies.

Riyadh pursues this in order to promote a friendly ideology in a neighbouring country as well as to counter the Brotherhood, which it, along with the UAE, deems to be a domestic and regional threat similar to the propagation of Shia Islam. Unlike the Salafists, the Brotherhood at least nominally called for Muslim unity and there were meetings between the Brotherhood and Iranian officials, including a summit with the powerful Quds Force, which could have helped soften the Sunni-Shia political divide. A bridging of the gap between the Arab world’s one-time power and Iran would in no way serve the interests of Saudi Arabia, nor those of Israel for that matter.

The Saudis have funded at least 20 television channels that are very popular in Egypt. Such media has played a key role in spreading the Salafi ideology due to their ability to reach a bigger audience than local mosques, yet the authorities in Egypt only deem TV stations promoting Shia Islam to be a security threat. However, there is now a tendency in Saudi Arabia to clamp down on Salafism in an attempt to promote a moderate image on the international stage under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. This has led many Saudi Salafist preachers to flee to Egypt, where they have a stronghold in the city of Alexandria.

The truth is that Jihadi-Salafists have been behind most of the acts of terrorism in Egypt’s modern history. Parts of the Sinai region have long been off-limits to the government and a group affiliated with Daesh called Wilayat Sinai was behind the country’s deadliest terrorist attack in 2017 when its members killed 305 people at a village mosque in North Sinai, targeting mainly Sufi worshippers. The government has opted for a scorched-earth policy in the area, which has led to human rights abuses and tens of thousands people fleeing from their homes. Dr Ahmad Rasem Al-Nafis is an Egyptian Shia who heads the Shia-affiliated news site Al-Nafis, one of the sites shut down by the government. A few months before the 2017 attack, he was asked during an interview what threat Egyptian Shia pose to the country: “Name a terrorist bombing that was carried out by Shia,” he challenged the interviewer.

There may be credence in the argument that the growth of the Shia population in Egypt causes social and religious tensions, particularly over wider regional political developments involving Iran and its allies, or simply the controversial polemics when it comes to different stances regarding the revered Companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) or key historical events. An indicator of a future trend can be seen in Nigeria, where 30 years ago there were virtually no Shia, yet today there are an estimated three million. Their main organisation is the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) which has been banned by the government for being, it alleges, “violent extremists”. Several clashes between protestors and security forces have taken place following the state’s detention of IMN leader Sheikh Ibraheem Zakzaky. In return, the IMN accuses the government of being a Saudi pawn seeking to eliminate the movement.

Despite the Egyptian government’s current attempts to censor Shia media, plausibly at the behest of its regional allies, determined individuals will still find a way of accessing information, more than likely via social media. There are valid concerns about the implications of the spread of Shia Islam in Egypt, but an arguably more serious security threat is already present in the form of Salafi ideology promoted heavily by Saudi petro-dollars.

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