Prisoners of Faith: The Egyptian Shia Crackdown

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Egyptian Police ForceOutlets are just beginning to reveal the extent of the wide-scale crackdown on the country’s Shia population following the high-profile arrest of leading Shia cleric Hassan Shehata at the beginning of this month.

Egyptian Police – For analysts and observers of Middle Eastern politics, the prominence of “sectarianism” in any post-Iraq invasion discourse has been one of the major developments in a region otherwise defined – according to Western coverage – by the stasis of undeviating central themes: oil, the Arab-Israeli conflict, terrorism, socio-economic stagnation, authoritarianism, etc. Truth be told, the sectarianism card is in many respects a façade that serves to mystify geopolitical developments and cloaks these changes in divisive religious symbols in the best interests of imperial powers and their regional hirelings.

As an example, according to the prevailing sectarian discourse (unwaveringly supported by so-called “moderate” Arab states), resistance movements like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad are presented as – before all – servants of an Iranian-led “Shia” agenda. Any cursory perusal of a pan-Arab daily or government-funded media outlet would reveal this sinister “Iranian-Shia” connection supposedly at work. Hardly a day goes by without grandiloquent references to a swarming “Shia tide”, or some shady “Shia connection”, or the “Shia crescent”.

Outside of this sectarian-discourse, however, the real agenda is far more worldly and indeed unholy. In fact, one could make a very strong case in arguing that one of the major success stories for the autocratic – but nevertheless “moderate” – Arab allies of the US has been in drawing a direct causal relation between the geopolitical rise of Iran and the salience of sectarian divisions in the Middle East.

Early last week, Amnesty International released a report highlighting the misuse of the “counterterrorism” pretext by the Saudi Arabian government. The novel justification was used to perpetrate, according to Amnesty, human rights violations of “shocking” levels in what was an “already dire human rights situation”. Among the many cases cited in the report as evidence, mention is made of Hani al-Sayegh, a Saudi-Shia citizen who, along with eight others, has been detained for close to 13 years “without trial”. The nine detainees, who have become widely known in the Eastern Province as Al-Mansiyoon (the Forgotten Ones), were detained in connection with the Khobar Towers bombings in 1996.

Interestingly, investigative journalist Gareth Porter retraced the details before and after the bombing in a recent five-part series of articles in which he points out: “The Saudi regime steered the FBI investigation toward Iran and its Saudi Shia allies with the apparent intention of keeping US officials away from a trail of evidence that would have led to Osama bin Laden and a complex set of ties between the regime and the Saudi terrorist organizer.” (Inter Press Service, ‘Al Qaeda Excluded from the Suspects List’, 22 June 2009)

Today, the grim realities that have historically faced the Shia community in the Saudi Kingdom have little changed. In the predominantly Shia Eastern Province, reports of arbitrary detentions (including of juveniles) and cases of sectarian harassment are regular occurrences. Mai Yamani, a Saudi national and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, notes that the “[s]uppression of the Shia is…a part of the Kingdom’s strategy to counter Iran.”

This posture is by no means unique to the Saudi Kingdom; indeed, the same story is repeated in Bahrain, Kuwait, and increasingly over recent years, in Egypt. In early 2006, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak declared: “Shias are mostly always loyal to Iran and not [to] the countries in which they live.” Not surprisingly, Egyptian media outlets thus upped the sectarian-ante following Hezbollah’s altercation with Mubarak during the Gaza war, which was shortly followed by the uncovering of a “Hezbollah cell” in Egypt.

Since then, the Egyptian press has gone into a whirlwind of frenzy, labelling Shias and also – it must be strongly underlined – members of the popular Sunni socio-political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, as “traitors”, “agents of Iran”, and an “inseparable part of the ‘Evil Crescent'”. The give-away exposes, unmistakably, the underlying rationale for Egypt’s sectarian agenda. With the pattern of (deceptive) use of the sectarian card to silence critics of Mubarak’s regime firmly taking shape, the US administration – in requital – has pulled their man closer.

Media outlets are just beginning to reveal the extent of the wide-scale crackdown on the country’s Shia population following the high-profile arrest of leading Shia cleric Hassan Shehata at the beginning of this month. Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) Hossam Bahgat warned that the hostile treatment of Shias by the Egyptian security apparatus – motivated by the climate of “political tension between Cairo and Tehran” – could return to “explode in the face of the Egyptian regime”.

On the back of the most recent (reported) raid in which 13 citizens were detained on charges of spreading Shi’ism, the aggregating numbers of those targeted by Egypt’s sectarian crackdown are truly shocking; for a country in which Shias supposedly account for only one percent of the overall Muslim population (90 percent), early reports suggest in excess of 300 detentions in mere weeks.

For such repressive sectarian agendas carried out by its regional allies, the US holds principal blame not only for its primary engineering of a “sectarian war” discourse shortly after the fall of Baghdad but also for its willful neglect, in the name of realpolitik, of sectarian agendas (and the resulting widespread human rights violations) by regional allies in order to contain the so-called “Iranian threat”.

In a visit to Cairo in 2005, Condi Rice famously acknowledged that consecutive US administrations had pursued “stability at the expense of democracy” in the Middle East. It seems that little – beyond pretentious, soul-searching words – has in fact changed.

The chief beneficiaries of a sectarian agenda are none other than the likes of King Abdullah and Hosni Mubarak, those paragons of “stability”. From the standpoint of Washington and Tel Aviv, the sectarian card offers the only means to polarize the uniting Muslim ranks rising against US and Israeli bullying and intransigence, a most critical objective, no doubt, for those who wish to maintain a worldview that looks upon the Middle East as a mega gas station. And with this strategy, they commit a far more fatal error.

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