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Iran’s image influencing Shias in Egypt

November 19, 2006

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CAIRO: Iran's rising regional influence has emboldened Egyptian Shias to demand more rights, but has also left them vulnerable under a regime that questions their loyalty and treats all religious groups with suspicion.

The post-Saddam Hussein rise of Iraq's long-downtrodden Shias, the popularity of Lebanon's Hezbollah movement and Iran's growing influence have all contributed to a spectacular regional Shia revival and left many Sunni Arab regimes feeling insecure.“After Hezbollah's victory in the war, the regime started to turn its attention to Shias (in Egypt),” said Ahmed Rasim al-Nafis, an Egyptian Shia and professor of medicine at Mansura University, referring to Hezbollah's 34-day conflict with Israel in July and August.

“There have been smear campaigns about us in the state press and in mosques, and our loyalty has been questioned,” he said from his home in the conservative northern city of Mansura.

There are no reliable figures for Egypt's Shia population. According to a US State Department report on religious freedom published in 2006, they account for less than one per cent of the country's 73 million inhabitants.

But Nafis and others challenge this figure as too high, saying that the lack of a proper census, community centres or separate places of worship makes it virtually impossible to calculate the number.

Nafis, 54, was not born a Shia. He grew up, like the vast majority of Egyptians, a Sunni Muslim.

His interest in Shiaism was sparked by the Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979 when he was a fresh graduate. “It was an exciting time,” he said. “The atmosphere was similar to now, and how people look up to Hezbollah and (leader Hassan) Nasrallah. “Nafis began to search for books on Shia Islam, and by 1985 he had read enough to know he wanted to convert.

While Sunni and Shias share the same fundamental beliefs, a split occurred over the Prophet Muhammed's succession. The Shias reject the elected leaders that came after him and believe that Islam's leadership should have gone to Prophet’s son-in-law Ali. Throughout Islamic history, Shias have sought spiritual guidance not from elected Muslim leaders but from the direct line of the prophet.

Nafis explained that what attracted him to Shiaism most was the sect's principle that the door of “Ijtihad” -- the process of interpretation -- was never closed.

He said that Shiaism paves the way for intellectual development, while Sunnism has been “hijacked by Wahhabi (traditionalist Sunni) ideology”.

In 2004, Nafis demanded the recognition of Shiaism as a legal sect in Egypt, but a police crackdown on the community the same year stalled the effort. Al-Azhar — Sunni Islam's main seat of learning — acknowledges Shiaism as a legitimate branch of Islam.

In 1959, then Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Mahmud Shaltut, issued a religious edict, or fatwa, recognising Shiaism as religiously correct.

Egypt's Shias are not a clandestine group: they speak openly in the press of their beliefs and pray freely in Sunni mosques.

But it is political Shiaism and its links with Iran that makes President Hosni Mubarak's regime uncomfortable.

In April Mubarak accused Arab Shias of being “always loyal to Iran and not the countries where they live”.

“The authorities did not waste much time after I converted. I was arrested in 1987 and charged with belonging to a Shia organisation,” said Nafis who was detained three times between 1987 and 1996.

“Whenever something happens in Iran or Iraq, it is reflected on Shias” in Egypt, said Mohammed al-Dereini, head of the Higher Council of the Ahl al-Bait, a Shia research centre based in Cairo.

Dereini voiced his desire in the press to apply to set up a Shia political party, but dropped the initiative following his 15-month detention in 2004 for “belonging to an illegal organisation and threatening national security”.

At least 124 Egyptian Shias have been arrested since 1988 in a series of crackdowns, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).

The centre's director, Hossam Bahgat, said there is no policy of Shia persecution in Egypt -- they are treated with suspicion like all other religious groups in the country as a threat that must be contained.

“In the eyes of the security services, there is no clear difference between Shias and a militant religious organisation. They simply don't care that Al-Azhar recognised them,” Bahgat said.

Egypt's opposition Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni organisation, also faces systematic arrest and harassment, and thousands of members of militant Islamist groups have been in Egyptian jails for years. “Egyptian security is always scared of religious groups, whatever their sectarian colour,” said Makram Mohammed Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the weekly current affairs magazine Al-Mossawar.—AFP