Mobs in the Egyptian village of Abou el Nomros lynched four Shi’a citizens on June 23 and injured many others in an assault that extended over several hours. The accounts of human rights organizations’ fact finding missions and eyewitness accounts tell the same story: Sheikh Hassan Shehata, a leading Shi’a figure was on a visit to one of the 200 or so Shi’a followers who live in the village of Abou el Nomros in the governorate of Giza. The village chief (al omda) warned Sheikh Hassan Shehata to leave as the inhabitants were enraged by his presence: he refused. Shortly thereafter, 5,000 residents, led by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis attacked and destroyed the house in which he resided, pulled him and others out, dragged them through the streets, hitting them with sharp and hard objects and fatally wounding them. The Arab Network for Human Rights’ (ANHR) fact finding mission discovered that the police previously knew of the planned attacks on the Shi’as but did nothing to prevent them, and that the very attacks which lasted for over three hours happened in their presence.
However, citizens did not just rise out of the blue against the Shi’a citizens in this village, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis have been inciting hatred against them for some weeks now. According to the same fact finding mission, the local imams have recently been using hate speech against the Shi’as regularly in their sermons, calling them infidels, and enemies of the Prophet. Following one of those inflammatory sermons three weeks ago, citizens went out in a protest against the Shi’as. Shi’as in the village of Abou el Nomros recount that up to two years ago, they never experienced any sectarian hatred towards them from the 17,000 strong village and there was generally social harmony. The Shi’a of Egypt have issued a statement blaming the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis for the violence. Media accounts note that the residents of Abou el Nomros were proud of having rid their village of the Shi’as and having lynched the infidels. The story bears striking resonances to the narratives of leading Muslim Brotherhood historians and political figures of their pride at having successfully mobilized mobs to attack Bahais and other sects in the 1930s (see Gom’a Amin (2006)The Muslim Brothers in Egyptian Society 1939-1945 (in Arabic) .
Yet the official discourse of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, as is usual, is one of a denial of any responsibility. Ironically, the highest level of authority, President Mohamed Morsi has warned against the Shi’a threat on several occasions. According to Salafi leader Hussein Yacoub, the President told him in a private conversation that the Shi’a represent a greater threat to Islam than the Jews.
More recently at the Cairo stadium last week, President Morsi expressed no objection when Sheikh Hassan appealed to him not to open Egypt’s pure doors to the Rafedah, the Shias - whom Sheikh Abd el Maqsoud in his speech called “the impure” (alanjas). Egyptians Against Religious Discrimination, a civil society group combating religious prejudice pointed to Morsi’s speech at that stadium as the epitome of incitement of religious hatred when he described the war in Syria as one in terms of Sunnis vs. Shias.
The truth of the matter is that with the rise of political power of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis over the past two years, and the generally lax security situation, sectarian aggression has placed under fire all those who do not belong to their own belief system, whether it is devout Muslims who are critical of these movements or Baha’is, or Shi’as, or the country’s largest minority, the indigenous Christian Coptic population. While the Mubarak regime’s policy gravitated between a divide and rule strategy and appearing to be the only ally for the Copts against the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood-led government has, so far shown a political and ideological reluctance to move away from a religiously-mediated notion of citizenship. Yet it too seeks to show that it is a “moderate” force compared to other Islamist forces. To the outside world, it seeks to convey the impression that it could be worse for religious minorities, if they end up with a Salafi-led government.
The author’s own research indicates that incidents of sectarian assaults against the Christians has increased from 45 cases in 2010 to 70 in 2011 to 112 in 2013 and they have continued to rise and become more intense and systematic since President Morsi came to power.
The witch hunt by those who see themselves as the true guardians of Islam against individuals and collectivities has become systematic, which is not surprising in view of the non-inclusive political order that the present government has espoused. There are many rumours being spread in Egypt today that the Islamists intend to strike against Christian citizens and groups on June 30, 2013 - the day of mass protests planned against the regime. Such rumours are intended to intimidate Christian citizens not to take part in the protests, but they also suggest that when it comes to staying in power, there can be no limits to instrumentalizing religion to make political gains.
The tragic consequences of a divisive political policy are not just borne on a domestic level, they are bound to have regional effects. Already, Iran’s foreign ministry has condemned the massacre of the four Shi’as in Egypt and dubbed it as part of a foreign conspiracy against Shi’as.
What next? Will Morsi’s government wage war to avert attention from the country’s growing economic woes and social and political dissent?