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Arrests raise concerns over Egypt's tolerance

As more than 300 Shiite Muslims are held without charge, analysts say the country's rulers are imparting a sense of fear.

Shia Muslim Mahmoud Gaber, a newspaper columnist, said the government is sending out a clear message to its Shiite population.
Shia Muslim Mahmoud Gaber, a newspaper columnist, said the government is sending out a clear message to its Shiite population.

CAIRO // More than 300 Shiite Muslims are believed to still be in the custody of Egyptian security forces more than two weeks after they were detained last month. Since the arrests on June 23 and 24, few among Egypt's small community of Shiite Muslims know the identities or whereabouts of those who have been arrested, nor have security officials explained why they chose to detain hundreds of Egyptians and more than 40 foreign nationals without charge. The lack of an explanation for the mass arrests has led to speculation about the government's motives. It remains unclear whether Egypt's security forces are responding to popular anti-Shiite sentiment among the country's majority Sunni population or if security officials believe that Egypt's estimated 750,000 Shiites actually represent a legitimate security threat as a potential "fifth column" for the rising influence of Shiite-majority Iran. "There is a Shiite threat upon the ruling religious doctrine in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia and the other moderate states," said Nabil Abdul Fatah, the deputy director of the semi-official Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "For this reason, from time to time, the security apparatuses in Egypt and many other Arab states depend on preventive attacks on this group." It is, at its base, a policy of fear, Mr Abdul Fatah said. By arresting Shiites en masse and without a stated cause, Egypt's ruling regime hopes to instil a sense of fear that may dissuade the country's small Shiite minority from organising in opposition to the government. "It is the same security policy from the 1952 revolution until now, vis-à-vis the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communists, the Nasserists. Anyone with any power, outside or within the political system, they are playing this game with them," Mr Abdul Fatah said, referring to the 1952 anti-monarchist revolution that led to the series of regimes that continue to rule Egypt. "This is a policy for weakening all these groups - all those groups that are under governmental threat." But it is also a security strategy that the government appears to be employing more frequently. The arrests of hundreds of Shiites in recent weeks were overshadowed by the detention of about 130 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition political group. While the Brotherhood is officially outlawed, it is widely tolerated. Politicians with known allegiances to the Brotherhood occupy more than 20 per cent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament. Unlike the Shiites, Egypt's Brotherhood members have been formally accused of the "crime" of belonging to an illegal organisation and their arrest has been widely reported. But the only information available on the more than 300 arrested Shiites, said Mohammed el Deriny, the head of the Al Bayt Association, a Shiite group, has come from the independent daily newspaper Al Masryoon, which is believed to be well-connected to Egypt's secretive security services. The press coverage of the Shiite arrests, especially when compared with those of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been limited. When it broke the story nearly three weeks ago, Al Masryoon reported that Hassan Shehata, a prominent Shiite cleric, was among those who were arrested. Mr Shehata has been accused in the past of "insulting the companions of the Prophet", the original followers of the Prophet Mohammed who are revered by Sunni Muslims. Like many of the facts surrounding the recent arrests, it remains unclear whether Mr Shehata's past statements were the cause of his detention. But for his part, Mr el Deriny believes the arrests were motivated by political considerations - specifically, the looming threat of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia-cum-political party that scorned the Egyptian government for refusing to open its border with the Gaza Strip during Israel's siege on the Palestinian enclave in late December and January. Several months ago, the Egyptian government arrested nearly 50 people and accused them of conspiring with Hizbollah to attack tourism and security infrastructure in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, acknowledged that he had sent an operative to Egypt to purchase weapons and humanitarian supplies for the Palestinians in Gaza, which Israel has blockaded since Hamas took control of the coastal enclave in 2007. As far as Egyptian security forces are concerned, the spectre of the Hizbollah conspiracy has not faded, Mr el Deriny said. What is perhaps most threatening for Egypt's ruling regime is that Hizbollah, which receives material and financial support from Iran, has grown in popularity among the majority of Egyptians who resent their own -government's diplomacy with Israel. "The regime always needs to assert that there is a danger," Mr el Deriny said. "The Egyptian government can't find a Shiite on whom to pin all these conspiracies. All of this is untrue because Iran is not our country. We're loyal to Egypt." As the detained begin their third week of incarceration without charge, Mr el Deriny said he is organising a public appeal with international organisations to push for their release. Sayyid Muftah, a Shiite lawyer who is representing Mr Shehata and two other detained Shiites, said the families of the arrested people have so far kept quiet in the hope that security forces will reward their silence by releasing their loved ones without charges. Mr Muftah said the families he represents do not wish to give their names or speak to the press until they hear more information from Egypt's ministry of interior. Regardless of whether the arrests stem from bigotry or fear of Iran and Hizbollah, said Shia Muslim Mahmoud Gaber, a newspaper columnist, the Egyptian government appears to be sending a clear message to its native Shiite population: be very afraid. "If they charge them with something, then the rest of the community will know. But if there's a lack of information, the rest of the Shiites will wonder what they did wrong. It will create a fear within the Shiite community," Mr Jabr said. "This follows the old Egyptian saying: 'If you hit a cow that's tied to a rope, the untethered cattle will be afraid to run away'." mbradley@thenational.ae