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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
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Egypt’s Shiite Minority: Between the Egyptian Hammer and the Iranian Anvil

Filed under: Egypt, Iran
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 591     September-October 2012

  • While some 90 percent of Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, the number of Shia in Egypt has been estimated at up to 2.2 million, including “Twelvers” and Ismailis. A Shiite dynasty, the Fatimids, conquered Egypt in 969 and ruled the country for 200 years.

  • The new Muslim Brotherhood President of Egypt, Mohammad Morsi, is reported to have said that the Shia are more dangerous to Islam than the Jews, while former Muslim Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh warned during the campaign that Shiism must not be allowed to enter Egypt.

  • At its core, the Muslim Brotherhood’s basic ideological doctrine is pan-Islamic and religiously inclusive, seeking to downplay religious differences between Sunnism and Shiism. However, the Brotherhood’s initial enthusiasm for the Iranian revolution soon soured as it was increasingly perceived as a Persian nationalist and distinctly Shiite revolution.

  • This perception became widespread in Sunni Arab societies after Iran attempted to export its revolution to Gulf Arab states, and after it formed an alliance with the Syrian regime, which was engaged in an open clash with the Brotherhood’s Syrian branch.

  • President Morsi, as his predecessors before him, has adopted a confrontational policy toward the Shiite minority and he will not tolerate any affiliation with Iran.

Egyptian President Morsi – A Sunni Hero?

Much has been written about the visit of Egypt’s newly-elected president, Mohammad Morsi, to Iran at the end of August 2012 and its implications for Egypt’s regional and global policies, especially vis-a-vis Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh.

However, Morsi’s international debut made its biggest impact at home. After he publicly denounced Syria’s regime while being hosted by Damascus’ top ally, Iran, his speech pointed to the new image he is attempting to cultivate: The tough, fearless leader who speaks with the voice of the people who chose him. For Islamists, he was a Sunni hero against the Shia.1

Clearly, Egypt intends to normalize its relations with Iran, whereas Mubarak’s Egypt was constantly raising the specter of Iranian plots meant to destabilize his regime. Still, even though Iran was the first Muslim country after Saudi Arabia that Morsi visited, the Arab street took note that Morsi, a life member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, rejects the notion of an Iran-led “Shiite crescent” posing a threat to the Sunni communities of the Muslim Middle East.

Morsi won praise from ultra-conservative Sunnis in Egypt who are his key allies and who only days earlier were loudly denouncing his trip to Shiite-majority Iran. For the first time in modern Egyptian history, an Egyptian president hit notes that were music to Salafi ears. Morsi kicked off his address with a salute to Abu Bakr and Omar, the Companions of the Prophet Mohammad and his first successors. Ultra-conservative Salafis despise Shia as heretics. Mentioning these two successors was seen as an implicit snub to Iran: Sunnis revere them, but Shia hate them because they are seen as cheating the man they see as Mohammad’s rightful successor, Ali.

The reference to the Companions of the Prophet was no coincidence. Morsi has a Muslim agenda that unfolds step by step. His first move was during Id-el-Fitr prayers, when the Egyptian president chose to pray at the Amr Ibn el ‘As Mosque, named for the Arab Muslim conqueror of the seventh century and the Muslim colonizer of Egypt.

In his salute to the Companions of the Prophet, Morsi hit an exposed nerve in Egyptian society, signifying to Salafis, Sunnis, Muslim Brothers and Egyptian Shia his stance vis-a-vis the Shiite question in Egypt, an issue that is rarely discussed in the press.

A Shiite Dynasty Ruled Egypt for 200 Years

Islamis the state religion of Egypt. Most citizens, approximately 90 percent, are Sunni Muslims. Although there are no official statistics about the number of Shia in Egypt, it has been estimated that they constitute roughly one percent of the population: around one million people.

Some scholars put Egypt’s current Ismaili population (the second largest branch of Shia Islam after the “Twelvers”) well above one percent and estimate Egypt’s total Shia population at 2.2 million, mainly concentrated in seldom-studied southern Upper Egypt.2 The main Shiite institution in Egypt is Al Majlis Al-A’la le Ahl al-Bayt (the Higher Council for the Protection of Ahl al-Bayt – the House of the Prophet Mohammad) headed by Mohammad el Dereiny.3

The notion that Shiism is imported or alien to Egypt is incorrect. A Shiite dynasty, the Fatimids, conquered Egypt in 969 and ruled the country for 200 years. The Fatimid Islamic Caliphate, or al-Fatimiyyun, was an Ismaili Shiite Muslim caliphate that spanned a vast area of the Arab world, from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Originally based in Tunisia, the Fatimid dynasty extended its rule across the Mediterranean coast of Africa, and ultimately made Egypt the center of its caliphate. At its height, in addition to Egypt, the caliphate included areas of the Maghreb, Sudan, Sicily, the Levant, and Hijaz.

The ruling elite of the state belonged to the Ismaili branch of Shiism. The leaders of the dynasty were also Shiite Ismaili imams; hence, they had a religious significance to Ismaili Muslims. They were also part of the chain of holders of the office of caliph. Therefore, this constituted a rare period in history in which the descendants of Ali (hence the name Fatimid, referring to Ali’s wife Fatima) and the caliphate were united to any degree, except for the final period of the Rashidun Caliphate under Ali himself. The caliphate lasted from 909 to 1171, when Saladin became Sultan of Egypt and returned the country to the nominal fealty of the Sunni Muslim Abbasid Caliphate.

Although the Fatimids endowed numerous mosques, shrines, and theological schools, they did not firmly establish their faith in Egypt. Numerous sectarian conflicts among Fatimid Ismailis after 1050 may have been a factor in Egyptian Muslim acceptance of Saladin’s (Salah ad Din ibn Ayyub) reestablishment of Sunni Islam as the state religion in 1171. The Al Azhar theological school, endowed by the Fatimids, changed quickly from a center of Shiite learning to a bastion of Sunni orthodoxy.

Yet Egypt remains a country with strong Shiite ties. The cultural legacy of Ahl al-Bayt (descendants of the Prophet Mohammad, literally, “people of the house”) remains strong even today. The clearest testament to the strength of Egyptian reverence for the Ahl al-Bayt is seen in the abundance of shrines and mosques dedicated to Hussein, Hassan, Zainab, Ali, and other Shia imams.

Many of the Fatimid era’s traditions are still practiced. Shiite practices such as celebrating Al-Mawlid Al-Nabawy (the Prophet’s birthday), Ashura (commemorating of Al-Hussein’s death), and even using lanterns during Ramadan are still common in Egypt. Egyptian Sunnis visit important shrines in Cairo such as Al-Hussein and Sayeda Zainab, and celebrate the deceased in a manner that overlaps with both Shiite and Sufi practices. Followers of conservative Wahhabi Islam, who view these practices as aberrations, often rebuke them for doing so.

Shiite scholars trace three generations of Egyptian Shia:4 The first generation was contemporaneous with Ali, the Prophet’s cousin, who first stirred the dispute over who should follow Mohammad in leading the Muslims after the Prophet’s Companions, who were not blood relatives, took over. This generation ceased to exist after years of Sunni rule.

The second generation involved Iranians who immigrated to Egypt in the nineteenth century and retained their Shiite faith. Former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s wife was herself a descendant of this group.

Finally, there are converts, many of whom were drawn to the faith after the Iranian revolution and the media campaign against Iran under Sadat. Many are former members of Islamist groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Muslim Brotherhood. Disenchanted with the jihadist movement’s failure, these men found an alternative in Shia Islam and the new Islamic state being chiseled out by Ayatollah Khomeini.

If Shiite ideology could not penetrate Egypt even under Shiite Fatimid rule, it seems that the intensive Shiite preaching efforts, sponsored by Iran and its religious leaders, have borne fruit and perhaps dozens of thousands of Egyptians have converted to Shiism. The new converts are disguised in more than 76 Sufi groups5 that seem to be the ultimate refuge of Shia in Egypt.

Because of their relative obscurity and the fact that they tend to shy away from public or political activism, Shia are often overlooked in discussions of Egypt’s religious minorities. Misinterpretation and confusion abound among both Sunni and Shiite communities, making reconciliation or acceptance between them an increasingly challenging task.

The schism between Sunni and Shiite Islam dates back to the death of the Prophet Mohammad in 632 CE and focuses basically on who should have replaced him as Muslim ruler, but the historical nature of the split does little to lessen the reality of Shia living and worshiping in Egypt.

Efforts by Al-Azhar University to bridge the gap between the various schools of thought have done little to reconcile Shiite and Sunni ideologies. Sheikh Mahmood Shaltoot, head of Al-Azhar University in 1959, issued a fatwa recognizing the legitimacy of the Jafari school of law to which most Shia belong. The institution also established a “Center for Bringing Together the Various Schools of Islamic Thought” that brought together several Sunni and Shiite scholars.6

However, this did not stop the regime from waging campaigns from time to time against the Shiite minority in Egypt. Unlike his predecessor, Sadat’s hostility toward Iran – the result of Egypt’s ties with Saudi Arabia and his concern that the Iranian revolution would be exported – was a reversal of Nasser’s support for Shiite clerics who opposed the shah, and whom Nasser viewed as revolutionaries against corruption.

The “politicization” of the Sunni-Shia divide through the proxies of Iran and Saudi Arabia became widespread in Egyptian society, when in reality the vast majority of Egyptian Shia has no personal or political ties to the Islamic Republic. The notion that Shi’ism in Egypt is a vehicle of Iranian subversion is also shared by some outside Egypt. Hostility against Shia is political rather than religious and revolves around the competing ambitions of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Repression under Mubarak

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia has deepened, allowing some regimes in the predominantly Sunni Muslim Middle East to accuse Arab Shia of threatening regional stability to serve Iranian interests. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had accused Shiite Muslims in the Gulf of being more loyal to Tehran than to their home countries. King Abdullah II of Jordan, meanwhile, warned of a “Shiite Crescent” that has cast a shadow across the entire region.7 A 2004 news report claimed that three Shiite dissidents were held by Egyptian security forces for eight months and were only released after they promised to convert to Sunni Islam.

While nearly three decades of Mubarak rule left Egyptians inundated with state-spun scenarios of Iranian plots aiming to destabilize the country, many sympathize with Iran’s Islamic revolution and consider Tehran’s defiance of the United States a model to follow. Indeed, during the Mubarak era, Shiites were under strict security restrictions and control due to their alleged affiliation with Iran. Shiites have often been regarded as agents of Iranian subversion by the Egyptian security forces.

The year 2009 witnessed a wave of arrests of Shiite leaders under the Emergency Laws, accused of “forming a group trying to spread Shiite ideology that harms the Islamic religion” and insulting Islam. More than 300 Shia were arrested at the end of June 2009, with no official explanation.8

One of those arrested was Sheikh Hassan Shehata, a Sunni scholar who adopted Shiism more than ten years earlier and was fired from his position as imam of the Mosque of Shohada’ El-Gama’a (the University’s Martyrs), a mosque located blocks away from the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Shehata was known as a Shiite hardliner whose fiery sermons attack the Prophet’s Companions and wife Aisha. Shehata was first detained in 1995 after he was heavily criticized by Sunni scholars, as well as the general public, who called for considering him an infidel (kafir) and expelling him from the country. Shehata was detained again in June 2009 under the charges of plotting against national security and disgust of religion. The investigations showed that Shehata had visited Iran twice, around the same time that Egyptian authorities captured an alleged Hizbullah cell in 2009.9

Mohammad el Dereiny, the official head of the Shiite community, said that the arrests were motivated by political considerations – specifically, the looming threat of Hizbullah. The Lebanese Shiite militia and political party scorned the Egyptian government for refusing to open its border with Gaza during Israel’s siege of the Palestinian enclave in late December 2008 and January 2009.

Several months earlier, the Egyptian government arrested nearly 50 people and accused them of conspiring with Hizbullah to attack tourism and security infrastructure in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s leader, acknowledged that he had sent an operative to Egypt to purchase weapons and humanitarian supplies for the Palestinians in Gaza, which Israel has blockaded since Hamas took control of the coastal enclave in 2007.10

In September 2009 two Egyptian lawyers filed a lawsuit against the government aimed at halting broadcasts of a Shiite channel carried by Egypt’s Nilesat satellite on the pretext that the channel attacked sacred Sunni symbols. The two Islamist lawyers, Tarek Abu Bakr and Nizar Ghorab, had filed their suit against the Minister of Information and the chairman of Nilesat, calling for the Fadak channel, which had broadcast a program presented by Kuwaiti Shiite preacher Yasser Habib, to be blocked. In the lawsuit, the lawyers accused Habib of insulting the Prophet Mohammad’s wife Aisha and the Islamic caliphs.11

A year later, in October 2010, Egyptian prosecutors charged 12 Shiite Muslims with promoting Shiite doctrine, insulting the Companions of the Prophet Mohammad, plotting to overthrow the ruling regime, and receiving foreign funds. The group, which had been arrested in August, included Egyptian, Moroccan, Iraqi, and Australian nationals.12

Perhaps as a measure to ease tensions between the Egyptian government and the Shiite community in Egypt, and in response to questions posed by a group of Saudi Arabian Sunni Muslim scholars, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ruled in October 2010 that “insulting the symbols of our Sunni brothers, including the Prophet Mohammad’s wife, is forbidden. This includes the women associated with all prophets, and especially those associated with the holy Prophet Mohammad.”13

Abdel Moaty Bayoumi, professor of theology and philosophy at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, argued that the fatwa was “incomplete” since it focused only on Mohammad’s wife Aisha, highly revered by Sunni Muslims, and did not refer to all of the prophet’s companions – some of whom are frequently mocked by Shiite Muslims.

Since the Egyptian Revolution, Shia Demand Their Rights

Since the 25 January Revolution, Egypt’s religious identity is being reshaped with the resurgence of hardline Salafi groups and a ruling Muslim Brotherhood president. Since the ouster of Mubarak, Shiite attempts at openness and political presence were met with Salafi threats. Salafi leader Mohammad El-Marakby, a member of the Board of Ansar El-Sunna, harshly rejected the intention of Egyptian Shia to establish a political party and called upon other Muslims to fight against this trend. He alleged that Shia in Egypt were attempting to create a political party and a newspaper financed by Iran.14

The election of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammad Morsi as President of Egypt has radicalized the issue. Asked by Mohammad Hussein Yaaqub from the Shura Council about the Shia, Morsi is reported to have said that the Shia are more dangerous to Islam than the Jews.15 In a debate ahead of the May 23-24, 2012, presidential election, one leading candidate, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, said Shiism must not be allowed to enter Egypt, while another candidate was forced to battle rumors that he secretly embraced Shiism.

Since the beginning of the revolution in January 2011, the attitude of the Egyptian regime has been deeply ambivalent towards the Shiite minority. On the one hand, Shia experienced a more lenient attitude by the regime which accepted the expression of their grievances and aspirations: Indeed, in the very first days, Shia expressed themselves in Tahrir Square through reviving the rituals of Imam Hussain and reciting “Labeik Ya Hussain” through megaphones and banners.16

In September 2011, Egypt’s Shiite minority announced its intention to run in the parliamentary elections slated for November, following in the footsteps of the Sunni Islamic movements that have resurged in the political arena since the January uprising. Shiite leaders announced their intention to establish a political party, named the Unity and Freedom Party. “As engaging in politics has become a right for all Egyptians, we must also be represented in parliament, just like any other faction,” said Ahmed al-Nafees, founder of the Unity and Freedom Party.17 Yet it came as no surprise when Salafi leader Gamal al-Marakby rebuked members of the Shiite community in Egypt for intending to form a political party, declaring that Salafis will oppose the move.

Encouraged by what was perceived as a new era of personal liberties following the revolution, for the first time in Egypt’s modern history Shiite Muslims gathered in front of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Cairo to denounce the Saudi stance on decrees permitting the demolition of shrines, as well as its funding of Salafi movements in Egypt. Demonstrators said the Saudi kingdom played a role in mobilizing Salafi Muslims to disrupt Egypt’s domestic security and endanger Sufis and Copts.18

In August 2012, following Mohammad Morsi’s election as president of Egypt, Egypt’s Shiite Muslim minority demanded official recognition by the state, permission to establish prayer halls, and a fixed quota of seats in the national parliament.19 Mohammad Ghoneim, head of the Egyptian Shiite Current organization, called on President Morsi as well as the official religious establishment of Al-Azhar to consider their demands. Ghoneim stressed that Shia have the right to practice their rituals without persecution and called for the establishment of “Husseiniyat” halls. Ghoneim argued that Shia made up the third largest religious group in Egypt, after Sunni Muslims and Coptic Christians, and that is why they needed fair representation in parliament. “Shia have to be represented in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and the Consultative Assembly, the upper house of parliament, as is the case with Copts, so that they would be integrated in the society and would no longer be treated as outcasts,” he said.

Egyptian Sunnis Remain Wary

However, security forces have continued to apply an iron first against any sign of “trespassing the limits of endurance of the regime” by the Shiite minority. Egypt’s security forces forcefully dispersed Shiite religious celebrations (the Ashura celebrations in December 2011) inside Cairo’s Hussein Mosque, claiming non-Shiite citizens would react angrily to the celebrations.20

The reaction to Lebanese Shiite cleric Ali Al-Korani’s visit to Egypt illustrates the political dimensions of the issue and the sensationalist way media covered the event. Korani, a messianic imam based in Qom, Iran, came to Egypt in May 2012. The Egyptian press responded with hysterical headlines about “the Shiite tide” in Egypt, Iran’s plans to influence the country through its Egyptian Shiite proxy, and Korani’s opening of the “first Husseiniya in Egypt.” Member of Parliament Yasser el-Qady even called for the implementation of Article 10 of Law 20/1936, which allows the Cabinet to confiscate publications that discuss religion in a way that could undermine public security.21

As a consequence, Egyptian authorities shut down the Shiite “Husseiniya” opened by Korani during his visit to Cairo, confiscating publications, posters, and recordings found in the mosque.

Korani’s visit to Cairo was condemned by Al-Azhar, the Islamic Research Academy, and the Ministry of Religious Endowments. Sunni clerics criticized the religious seminars that Korani had attended and the lectures he had given in the homes of Shia in Cairo and elsewhere. They described the Shiite cleric’s actions as an “unacceptable red line” and considered them an attempt to spread Shiite doctrine in Egypt. Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the imam of the prestigious Sunni Al-Azhar Institute, issued a statement condemning what he said were attempts to spread Shiism in Egypt. Tayyeb said that Al-Azhar “rejected any Husseiniya in Egypt because of their negative effects in destabilizing the country and fracturing unity and weakening the national fabric.”22

In July 2012, Egypt’s security services in Cairo’s Bulaq al-Dakrour neighborhood identified one of five Shiite preachers about whom the police had received several complaints, accompanied by copies of their interviews on the Internet, claiming that they allegedly insulted and mocked the Prophet Mohammad and his companions in an attempt to spread Shiism. The claimants said the defendants used the Internet to communicate their ideas to residents, and that they tried to arrest them but failed.23

Abd Al-Daim Nasir, an adviser to Egypt’s top cleric, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, and his representative at the constitutional assembly, told the London-based daily Asharq Al-Awsat on July 25 that Al-Azhar University had requested that a clause be introduced into the new constitution “outlawing the offense of God, the prophets and their wives, and the followers” (of the Prophet Mohammad). The clause was meant to target Shia, who ritually curse Mohammad’s wife Aisha and a number of his followers who opposed the leadership of Ali.24

Iran Distances Itself from Egypt’s Shia

Official Iran, feeling the wind of change coming from Cairo, rushed to disassociate itself from events in Egypt. During his meeting with an Egyptian delegation visiting Tehran, Mohammad Mahdi Taskhiri, secretary general of the World Assembly for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought, said that Iran was not connected to Shiite groups in Egypt that had held Husseiniyat rituals performed in memory of the death of Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussein. Such practices harm the possibility of dialogue and Islamic unity, and hence are irresponsible. He described them as individual practices.25

Taskhiri said that more than ever, Islamic countries need to cooperate in political, social, and economic fields in light of the common challenges they face, particularly since they have a common history. He emphasized the need to steer clear of doctrinal differences in the Islamic world and of attempts to spread one’s doctrine in other countries, saying this would lead to fragmentation and extremism. Taskhiri said his organization has participated in and organized more than 80 forums in the previous year. Al-Azhar first brought up the idea of bringing Shiite and Sunni Muslims closer 70 years ago, he said.

Tashkiri’s attitude was also reflected by the Head of Iran’s Interest Section in Cairo, Mojtaba Amani, who declared in April 2012 that Iran does not see the Shia as separate from other Egyptian citizens. He reiterated that Shia are part of the Egyptian nation, they have their own methods for settling their issues, and Iran does not meddle in their affairs. He said the U.S., Israel, and their associated groups are trying hard to sow discord between Iran and post-revolution Egypt, the two Muslim powers in the region, especially after the two countries showed profound interest in resuming relations after three decades.26

Muslim Brotherhood Perceives a Persian Nationalist Threat

The Mohammad Morsi presidency has added a fundamental unknown element into the strained and problematic relations between the regime, Egyptian Shia, and Iran. According to a study by Israel Elad Altman, the Shiite question has not always been an issue for the Brotherhood. At its core, the Brotherhood’s basic ideological doctrine is pan-Islamic and religiously inclusive. Since the movement’s creation in 1928, Brotherhood leaders have emphasized the political importance of Islamic unity and have sought to downplay religious differences among various Islamic legal schools, including between Sunnism and Shiism.

Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna considered all of Islam’s many sects – except for the Bahais and Qadianis – as belonging to the worldwide Muslim nation (umma). In this spirit, Banna additionally took part in 1948 in the establishment of the Association for Rapprochement between the Islamic Legal Schools (Jamiyyat al-Taqrib bayna al-Madhahib al-Islamiyyah). This organization was designed to bridge the religious divides between Sunni and Shia, and due to this organization’s leadership and influence, Shaykh al-Azhar Mahmud Shaltut declared Twelver Shiite worship to be valid, and recognized it as a legal tradition to be taught in Al-Azhar. As such, Banna and the organization he created originally adhered to an ideological outlook for which the “Shiite question” did not exist.27

The Brotherhood’s initial enthusiasm and support for the Iranian revolution was soon dampened, however, when the revolution did not turn out to be what its Sunni Islamist admirers had expected it to be. By the mid-1980s, Brotherhood relations with Iran had soured significantly as the nature of the revolution was increasingly perceived not in universal and pan-Islamic terms, but as a Persian nationalist and distinctly Shiite revolution. These perceptions became widespread in Sunni Arab societies, especially as Iran attempted to export its revolution to Gulf Arab states, and also as Iran formed an alliance with the Syrian regime, which was engaged in an open clash with the Brotherhood’s Syrian branch. The Iraq-Iran War only further inflamed Sunni Islamist animosity across the region against the revolutionary Iranian state. The Brotherhood was initially critical of Iraq for launching the war against Iran, but then turned against Tehran when it extended the war in the hopes of toppling the Iraqi regime and occupying Iraqi territory.

Events of the 1980s thus infused new acrimony into the Brotherhood’s relations with Iran. Ayatollah Khalkhali, the chief of Iran’s revolutionary courts, reportedly referred to the Brotherhood then as “the devil’s brethren.” In 1987, Shaykh Said al-Hawa, the prominent Syrian Muslim Brotherhood scholar and leader, published the book Khomeinism: Deviation in Faith and Deviation in Positions. Relations between the Brotherhood and Iran have become further strained since the Second Gulf War, when the Brotherhood took Iran to task for not coming to Iraq’s aid against the West, and then for supporting the Iraqi Shiite uprising against Saddam.28

The Shiite question has remained a deeply controversial and divisive issue within the Brotherhood, especially as a consequence of recent developments related to Iran’s growing power. This has been further underscored since the beginning of the civil war in Syria where the Alawite-Shiite regime is fighting the Islamists, whose main fighters come from the ranks of the forbidden Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood Debates the Shiite Question

The Brotherhood as a whole is torn over the Shiite question, between its identity as a pan-Islamic movement that desires unity with Iran to advance its agenda, and its identity as a distinctly Sunni and Arab movement that not only operates within unique socio-political contexts, but has reason to be suspicious and even hostile to Shiite power.29

Yet the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has consistently sought to avoid entanglement in the Sunni-Shia controversy and has downplayed Shiite efforts to convert Sunnis as marginal. They have further claimed that Sunni-Shia strife has been instigated by the U.S. as a way of dividing Muslims. The Sunni and Shia, they argue, comprise one Muslim nation that must unite in order to confront “the American Zionist project that seeks to eradicate Islam.” The standard Muslim Brotherhood position has been that the Shia are Muslims for all intents and purposes, and that the differences between Sunni and Shia pertain to matters of jurisprudence that are of secondary importance, not to principles of faith. But this general formula became insufficient in view of the Shiite conversion debate and virulent attacks on Shiite beliefs and practices. An internal debate has emerged, reflecting a deep division within the organization on this matter.30

Historically, as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has downplayed religious differences between Shia and Sunni, they have argued that Twelver Shiism should be recognized as an acceptably orthodox school of Islamic jurisprudence. Thus, the Brotherhood effectively serves as a counterbalance to the Wahhabi/Salafi-led campaign to vilify Shiism. In this way, the Brotherhood’s ecumenical approach has helped make Sunni society increasingly more open to Shiite religious proselytizing.

Still, Morsi’s declarations make it very clear to the Egyptian Shiite community “that change is not around the corner.” Morsi, as his predecessors before him, has adopted a confrontational policy toward the Shiite minority and he (as his predecessors) will not tolerate any affiliation with Iran.

* * *


1. Sarah El Deeb, “Drama in Iran Wins Egypt President a Bold Image,” AP, August 31, 2012.

2. Maggie Michael, “Egypt President to Visit Iran, a First in Decades,” AP, August 18, 2012; Raghda El Halawany, “Egypt’s Present Day Shia Live on Fatimid Legacy,” Daily News Egypt,, September 9, 2010.

3. Islamopedia online, “Shiite Muslims,”

4. Sarah Carr, “Egypt’s Shia Pay the Price of Regional Struggle,” Al Masry el Youm, August 13, 2012.

5. Ahmed Zaki Osman, “Sufis Feel Pressure as Salafi Power Grows,” Egypt Indpendent, April 5, 2011.

6. Halawany.

7. AP, April 18, 2012.

8. Islamopedia.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Media Network, “Egyptian Lawyers Sue Nilesat over Shia TV Channel,” September 27, 2010.

12. Al Masry el Youm, October 11, 2010.

13. Al Masry el Youm, October 5, 2010.

14. Al Masry el Youm, May 24, 2011.

15. MEMRI TV Video, June 20, 2012.

16. Elaph, July 19, 2012;

17. Al Masry el Youm, September 18, 2011.

18. Al Masry el Youm, April 10, 2011.

19. Al Arabiya, August 29, 2012.

20. Al Masry el Youm, December 7, 2011.

21. Al Masry el Youm, May 19, 2011.

22. AFP, May 21, 2012.

23. Egypt Independent, July 29, 2012.

24. Elhanan Miller, Times of Israel, July 26, 2012.

25. Al Masry el Youm, May 29, 2012.

26. FARS News Agency, April 18, 2012.

27. Israel Elad Altman, “The Brotherhood and the Shiite Question,” Hudson Institute, November 19, 2009.

28. Altman.

29. Ibid.

30. Ibid.