There is very little talk about Egypt’s small Shia minority. Meet some Shia Muslims and learn about the challenges they face trying to live and practise their faith in a predominantly Sunni country.
Abu Hasan bursts into the room where we are sitting; his eyes wide, his face flushed.
“I’ve been threatened in my own home. I had to leave without even packing, I was too scared to stay there any longer.”
He explains that himself, his wife, and their three children had to flee the apartment they rent here in Alexandria after a neighbour posted a note under their door saying they will be killed if they don’t leave.
“This is third time we have had to move in four years,” he says.
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.
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 1 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,” says one woman we spoke to.
This sort of ignorance is typical of the majority of Egyptians we spoke to. People seem to be either unaware of Shias in their midst, or unwilling to accept their existence. 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, and Sayed Gamal Hashemi, a friend of Abu Hasan, says that he himself was arrested in 2003 and asked to identify other Shias in his community.
“Before the revolution, the situation of Shia was critical in Egypt, but since the revolution we have had a light margin of freedom,” he says.
But when asked whether Shias or Christians have more rights in post-revolutionary Egypt, Hashemi is quick to answer: “Christians,” he says, “of course.”
Despite the intolerance they are faced with on almost a daily basis, the number of Shia in Egypt seems to be growing, and there are 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 made the decision to convert because he felt the Sunni system “did not accept change, whereas Shia philosophy is much more dynamic both politically and socially.”
Hizb-ut-Tahreer – along with its founder, Shia convert Ahmed Rassam al-Nafees – has been accused of having potential ties to Iran and Hezbollah – claims that Jabr vehemently denies. “The Egyptian constitution will never accept a Shia party,” he rebukes, “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 tells us, when in reality the vast majority of Egyptian Shia have no personal or political ties to the Islamic Republic. And indeed, when we approach 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 prejudice is difficult to overcome, and there are concerns among the Shias we spoke to that the rise of Islamist movements in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak will result in even fewer rights for their community.
“We cannot have Shias in our mosque because of their extremist views,” says the head of Alexandria’s Salafi Al-Fattah mosque.
When asked if he would support the construction of a Shia mosque to allow Shias to pray in their own space, the bearded man (who declined to give us his name) looks at us wide-eyed, as if surprised by the question.
It is a little word, but it says so much about the state of Egypt and about the country’s forgotten minority.
Emanuelle Degli Esposti, Great Britain
Farah Souames, Algeria
Produced during the Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalist in Alexandria