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Between Inaction and Complicity: The Shi‘a and the Brotherhood

[Eyewitness and videographer Hazem Barakat describing the attack on Shi'a in Giza. Image from Mosireen] [Eyewitness and videographer Hazem Barakat describing the attack on Shi'a in Giza. Image from Mosireen]

Some have commented on the incident of sectarian violence in the village of Zawiyat Abu Musallam in the Giza district on 23 June 2013 as the product of a "simple" people and a "crowd" mentality. The figure of the "simple" like that of the "poor" have become straw men who liberals, leftists, and Islamists target as the cause of social illness and dysfunction. The murder of four Shiites that the artistic collective, Mosireen captured and documented in the video below is an ugly moment. It speaks volumes about two coinciding phenomena. On the one hand, it reflects a deep and broad discontent. Egyptians are finding it increasingly difficult to put bread on the table. It is usually in moments of deep economic crisis that the "minority" is both constructed and singled out for blame. On the other hand, this incident of cold-blooded intra-communal murder also speaks to the toxic power of political and religious leaders who incite hatred against the "other" to mask the very discontent and poverty that they are complicit in deepening. It was this toxic power that the village Imam was drunk on. 

Video testimony of attack on Shi'a community in Giza by Mosireen

It was this toxic power that Mohamed Morsi relied on in his recent performance at the Cairo International Stadium on 15 June 2013. The Egyptian president brought together a who's who of Islamist politics in an extravaganza of political theater. He provided a platform for the most sectarian interlocutors. Ostensibly, they gathered to call against the Syrian regime and its allies. This pretense at solidarity with Syrian liberation was an unconvincing mask of sectarian regional positioning; it aimed at base to quench rising domestic discontent. After all, it was a short jump from the show of “solidarity” to the public demonization of Egypt’s Shi‘a. The President sat stoic, occasionally applauding as prominent Salafist sheikh Mohammad Hassan implored him to "not open Egypt's doors to rejectionists." Another sheikh, Mohammed Abdelmaqsoud stood at the podium and declared Shi‘a "filthy" before launching into a tirade against "the enemies of Islam." 

This transparent incitement set the stage for the anemic governmental response to the sectarian violence that took place eight days later. It was instead non-governmental organizations and non-profit collectives that took immediate action. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) issued an incident report  that delved into the circumstances of the murders and featured detailed testimonies. Human Rights Watch released a report and called on the government to recognize and protect the equal rights of Egypt’s Shi‘a. A lethargic Morsi eventually released a generic statement  condemning the murders; it fell far short of emphasizing the Shi‘a as full and equal Egyptian citizens. 

Sectarianism in Egypt usually conjures two categories—the Copt and the Muslim. Last week it appeared that "Sunna" and "Shi‘a" were now in currency. The cold-blooded violence was, everyone agreed, a black day for the country.

But we should not fail to historicize these phenomena. The Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies have done much to vilify Egypt’s Shi‘a. But the state has a longer trajectory of systematically marginalizing this community through targeted political arrest, accusations of treason and heresy, and the erasure of Egypt’s Shi‘i history under Fatimid rule.

In 1959, fatwas like that of the Azhar's sheikh Mahmood Shaltoot attempted to reconcile sectarian differences by recognizing the Ja‘fari school of law. It was under Mubarak that the Azhar issued several edicts threatening Shi‘a from "spreading their faith." By the end of his era, hundreds of Shi‘a were behind bars on the grounds of "undermining national security and contempt for religion."

Many religious practices in Egypt today carry on Shi‘i tradition and unofficial estimates put Egypt's Shi‘a between 800,000 to one million people. Yet despite all this, the Shi‘a are by virtue of the state’s enforced marginalization largely invisible. It is this institutionalized and systemic discrimination that is coming to the fore under Brotherhood rule. Television channels such as Al-Nas and Al-Hafeth (among the most ardent of Morsi's supporters) spread vitriol and in some instances actively incite the public against Shi‘i Egyptians. 

Morsi and the Brotherhood have drafted one delayed statement after another decrying violence against one religious minority after another. Yet as blood spills, the presidency continues apace with the divisive and inflammatory sectarian discourse of its allies. In the best of cases we can call this leadership complacent. In the worst of cases we can point to the explicit incitement against religious minorities. Both cases amount to an endorsement of violence against a rapidly expanding category of the “other.” Both cases amount to complicity.

At no point in his two and a half hour speech of 26 June, meant to preempt tomorrow’s protests, did Morsi mention the mob attack against the Shi‘a in Zawiyat Abu Musallem. In the face of this indifference, Reem Magued of ONTV's Baladna Bilmasry turned the agenda on its head; she interrupted the president's speech to host a Shi‘i victim of the attack. In the face of the rising tide of sectarianism, the government left behind it a gaping hole of inaction and complicity. It was the citizen journalists at Mosireen, the practitioners at the non-governmental organizations of EIPR and Human Rights Watch, and the private television broadcasters who stepped up.

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