Shia-Sunni Friction Growing In Egypt

Some of Egypt's leading Islamist parties are planning a demonstration this week in Tahrir Square to protest what they believe are warming relations between Iran and Egypt. Their concerns are not focused solely on a possible diplomatic rapprochement, but what they fear more -- creeping Shiism in Sunni lands.

Since the Egyptian revolution, Sunni animosity in Egypt toward Shia Muslims has increased and gone public in a country where, in the past, doctrinal differences between the two Islamic sects were barely mentioned.

Even at al Azhar, the mosque and university complex that is a seat for Sunni learning and where Shia jurisprudence is taught as part of the curriculum, there is far less tolerance than in the past.

"You can't trust the Shia because of taqiya," a scholar at Al Azhar told me in February when I was in Cairo. He was referring to a practice permitted in Shia Islam whereby followers may deny or otherwise obscure their religious beliefs if they feel they are under threat of persecution. The dispensation of taqiya was particularly important historically because the Shia often lived as minorities in Sunni-dominated societies, as is the case in Egypt and much of the Arab world. The concept of taqiya does not exist in Sunni jurisprudence, but the practice of self-preservation is not unknown.

The Egyptian government under former President Hosni Mubarak considered Iran its enemy for different reasons. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran's regime articulated the grievances that many Arabs felt toward the United States and its support for dictators like Mubarak in their own countries.

Iran also stood with Syria as the bulwark against Israel's harsh treatment of Arabs, particularly Palestinians. Moreover, Mubarak often feared -- unjustifiably -- that Egypt's Islamists would embrace the Iranian model of a theocratic state.

Since the election of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran has viewed the Islamist presidency as an opportunity, ignoring much of the criticism among Egypt's Islamists. But the reality is something different: instead of enhancing Muslim solidarity, the rise of Egypt's different strands of Islamism have served to confront Iran on political and theological grounds.

Now, it is some of these very Islamists who have taken up the mantle against Iran and Shiism. "Iran is a religious state," said a political adviser to Abdel-Moneim Aboul Fatouh, who ran as a presidential candidate and lost to President Morsi. "But we (Islamists in and outside the Muslim Brotherhood) don't want Islamic interpretation to be part of law because Iran is a bad model. But some of the Salafis want this. Ironically, the Salafis hate the Shia because of their religious state, but that is what some Salafis want here in Egypt."

In November, about 10,000 Salafis staged demonstrations calling for sharia to be imposed in Egypt. As Egypt drafts a post-revolutionary constitution, the role of religion in the state is being hotly contested and is dividing Islamists and secularists. In many Arab states, the uprisings have unleashed sectarian hostility that had been on the rise, but contained under repressive regimes that had little tolerance for freedom of expression. In addition, the uprisings have encouraged an intensification of identities, whether about religion, gender or ethnicity. But even before the uprisings began, some Sunni religious scholars were setting the stage for a sectarian conflict. Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi, for example, a leading figure with millions of followers who is the de facto spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, had warned of the "Shiite wave" in the Sunni world. In an interview with Asharq Alawsat at the end of September 2008, Qaradawi said, that historically he never knew of any Shia in Egypt since the time of Saladin (in the 12th century). But "today, the Shiites have managed to infiltrate Egypt."

When confronted with criticism, some Iranian leaders have used the tiresome explanation that a plot backed by the West is the cause of Sunni animosity. For example, when Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani traveled with a delegation on a four-day visit to India in late February, he called upon Islamic nations to "watch for a divisive plot hatched by the enemies (the West) to divide them."

When President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad returned to Iran from a visit to Egypt in early February, his aides attempted to put a positive spin on a visit what was pretty much of a disaster. True, it was the first visit of an Iranian president to Egypt since the 1979 Islamic revolution, but the trip only highlighted growing hostility toward Iran and Shiism.

Not only did Ahmadinejad get a shoe thrown at him by an assailant who was believed to be angry over Iran's support for Syria's Alawite President Bashar al Assad during a trip to Cairo's Shia Al Hussain Mosque, but the man shouted, "You're are slaughtering our people (the Sunnis)." During the trip, Ahmadinejad was chastised by scholars at Al-Azhar. At a news conference, an aide to Al-Ahzar's Grand Sheikh accused the Shia (clearly a reference to Iran) of interfering in Arab countries, including Egypt and Bahrain, and of discriminating against the minority of Sunnis in Iran. Yet, when Ahmadinejad returned home, one of his close aides, Rahim Mashaei described the trip as an historic moment. "Currently, Ahmadinejad is recognized in the Islamic world and the international community as an exceptional individual," Mashaei said, according to the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA). "... Now a revolution has taken place in Egypt and once again the Egyptian people are realizing their religious and national capabilities. If Iran and Egypt stand side by side, they can have a tremendous amount of impact in the Islamic world and the Middle East."

If this week's demonstration in Cairo happens, it will provide more evidence of how some Sunni are conflating Shiism, the second largest sect within Islam, with Iran itself. It will demonstrate the growing sectarian divide in a country where discrimination based upon doctrinal difference used to be reserved only for the Christians. And it will cast more doubt on the likelihood of a rapprochement between Iran and Egypt.

Geneive Abdo is a fellow at the Stimson Center and the author of the forthcoming book "The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shia-Sunni Divide," to be published in March by the Brookings Institution.