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In the new Egypt, a conflict as old as Islam

Salafists and Shiites are wrangling over freedom of religion and its place in the country's new constitution. Bradley Hope reports from Cairo
Amr Abdulllah, an Egyptian who converted to Shiism seven years ago, prays in his home. There aren't any mosques that he feels welcome to pray in with other Shiites so he usually stays home.
Amr Abdulllah, an Egyptian who converted to Shiism seven years ago, prays in his home. There aren't any mosques that he feels welcome to pray in with other Shiites so he usually stays home.

CAIRO // The battle for freedom of religion in Egypt is usually portrayed as only a conflict between secularists and newly empowered Salafis keen to establish a Sunni Islamic state. Yet in recent months another, potentially volatile, conflict has erupted along a familiar fault line: ultraconservative Sunnis and Shiites.

During a debate broadcast on Dream TV in August, a zealous Salafist and a young convert to Shiism wrangled over the future of religious freedom in the Arab world's most populous country.

Amr Abdullah, 24, defended the rights of Shiites to practise their religion, while Walid Ismail, 36, a Salafi businessman who has become one of the most vocal critics of Shiites, said Mr Abdullah was not a "real Muslim". The show culminated with Mr Abdullah rushing from the set early to avoid what he said were threats of violence waiting for him outside the studio.

What came next was a sign of a growing rift between members of the Shiite minority who are seeking greater freedoms in post-Mubarak Egypt and Salafists and other Islamists who are pushing for a state based on Sharia.

Mr Abdullah's image was posted on Facebook walls with superimposed messages calling for his arrest for insulting Islam. Then several posters appeared on walls near his home declaring his blood to be "halal" - a message he interpreted as an assurance that anyone who killed him would not be punished in the afterlife.

"The situation now for the Shia is very bad," said Mr Abdullah, who converted to Shiism seven years ago. "For many years, Shia were able to live in Egypt without too much trouble. Now we are speaking up and some of the Sunni see us as a competitor over the core of religion in our country. They are opposing us completely."

Currently, the struggle to ensure religious freedom for all Egyptians is focused on the writing of a new constitution. A draft of the new constitution is expected to be issued officially in the next several weeks, but Shiites are already expecting the worst, since more than half of the 100 members of the panel come from Islamist groups.

Early versions of the draft constitution indicate that religious freedoms will only be enshrined for Sunnis, Christians and Jews.

One draft provision includes an anti-blasphemy clause that refers to the "rightful successors to the Prophet" - a phrase that one legal analyst, Zaid Al Ali, said was directed clearly at Shiites.

"Nothing in the drafts of the constitution targets Shia practices or says they can't engage in their own rituals, but there is a subtext," said Mr Al Ali, an expert on Arab constitutions at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a non-governmental organisation. "The provision prevents blasphemy against the Sunni successors and not the Shia successors."

Mr Al Ali said it was conceivable that anti-Shiite groups could use such a provision to file suits against the Shia for insulting the "rightful successors".

Disputes between Sunnis and Shiites have simmered since the earliest days of the faith. During political upheaval, they have often erupted in violence.

After the fall in 2003 of Saddam Hussein, who repressed Shiites and prevented pilgrims from visiting their shrines and holy places in Iraq, sectarian violence tore apart the country.

In the Egypt of former president Hosni Mubarak, disputes between Sunnis and Shiites were quelled by force. Although Shiites were tolerated, they were prevented from holding public celebrations and building their places of worship called "husseinya".

In the political ferment that has swept Egypt since Mubarak was forced from power, the country's political factions and religious groups - Sunnis and Shiites included - are keen to assert a control over the areas of their lives that was denied them under his regime.

Despite the new mood of freedom, however, the problems of Egypt's Shiites have not eased under Mohammed Morsi, who held a high-ranking post in the Muslim Brotherhood and resigned after he became president. If anything, they have sharpened because of the increasing influence of Salafists in Egypt's political life.

The country's leading religious authorities, who all espouse Sunni doctrine, have accused Shiites of threatening the unity of Islam. And Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti, warned in a sermon at Al Azhar University earlier this month that Shiites should not spread their beliefs in the country.

He warned that "sewing the seeds of Shiism in a non-fertile soil like Egypt will lead to nothing but instability and discord", according to a summary of the sermon published on the Grand Mufti's website.

Bahaa Anwar, who was appointed spokesman for Egypt's Shiites by the most prominent Shiite sheikh, Hassan Shehata, said he has met with more than 20 ambassadors in Egypt over the last few months to press the case for recognising the rights of the country's Shiites.

"Whether people like it or not, Shiism is spreading all over the country," he said. "We only want to practise our beliefs freely. We are not agents of Iran."

There are no official statistics on how many Shiites there are in Egypt, but Mr Anwar puts their number at three million, which would make them the second largest minority after Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of the country's population. Other published figures say Shiites amount to less than one million of Egypt's 83 million people.

Mr Anwar said most estimates were too conservative, saying many Shiites in Egypt practise "taqqiya" or dissimulation, keeping their true beliefs secret for fear of discrimination or attacks.

"We have CEOs of companies, army officers, professors at universities and government officials who are Shia, but they are not comfortable with making it known," said Mr Anwar, who converted to Shiism about 10 years ago.

During their religious commemorations, Shiites across Egypt gather in 42 secret "husseinyas" located inside buildings or apartments, he said.

Unless the government protects Shiites, they will continue to face discrimination in the workplace and in communities across Egypt, Mr Anwar said. He said he has not been able to hold a job for more than a few months in the last decade because of discrimination against Shiites.

Of all the Sunni opponents of Shiites in Egypt, Salafists are by far the most vocal.

Asked about his televised debate with Mr Abdullah in August, Mr Ismail, who heads a group called the Muslim Committee for Defending the Family and Friends of the Prophet Mohammed, denied threatening Mr Abdullah's life.

Still, he said, he was staunchly opposed to granting the Shiites greater rights in Egypt because they were "a danger" across the region, citing sectarianism in Iraq, Iran's alleged quest for a nuclear weapon and the civil war in Syria.

"What is religious freedom?," he said by telephone from Alexandria. "Does it mean that Shia are allowed to insult the friends of the Prophet Mohammed? We cannot let this happen in Egypt."

The confrontation with Mr Abdullah has not been Mr Ismail's only well-known clash with a Shiite. He participated in another televised face-off with Mahmoud Hamed, a Shiite activist, last month.

During a debate with the spokesman for the Shiite Youth Movement, Mr Ismail claimed that Mr Hamed's family had disowned him over his conversion to Shiism.

A visibly angry Mr Hamed replied by insulting Mr Ismail's wife, saying she had phoned Shiites to arrange "pleasure marriages" - an innuendo for prostitution.

At first, Mr Ismail replied cooly, saying the remark was inappropriate. When Mr Hamed persisted, Mr Ismail hurled a cup of water at him. Mr Hamed then fled the studio.

In an interview, the Shiite activist said that he was tired of Salafists calling him a "Kafir" or infidel. The provocation from Mr Ismail had pushed him over the edge, he said.

"You can't have dialogue with people who refuse to believe you are a Muslim," said Mr Hamed, who disclosed that he voted for Mr Morsi in the belief that the Brotherhood would grant the Shiites their rights.

"Our true hope is the chance for coexistence in Egypt."

bhope@thenational.ae

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Updated: October 17, 2012 04:00 AM

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