Crackdown on Shia TV channels, websites expected in Egypt

Dozens of Shia channels are broadcast via Egyptian communications satellite series Nilesat.
Sunday 08/03/2020
Al-Hussein mosque, which was built in 1154 in name of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, Hussein ibn Ali, highly regarded by Shia Muslims, on Al-Mu’izz al-Din Illah Street in Cairo. (AFP)
Fear of divisions. Al-Hussein mosque, which was built in 1154 in name of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, Hussein ibn Ali, highly regarded by Shia Muslims, on Al-Mu’izz al-Din Illah Street in Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - Egypt’s Salafists welcomed a court ruling ordering Egyptian authorities to suspend operations at Shia TV channels and internet service providers to take down Shia sites. The verdict, they said, protects Egypt against attempts by Iran to spread Shia Islam in Egypt.

“Shia Islam poses a great danger to Egypt and its people,” Salafist activist Sameh Abdel Hamid said.

Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court, which rules in disputes between ordinary citizens and state institutions, ordered Shia TV channels be taken off the airwaves in Egypt and the blocking of Shia websites.

The case was brought by Egyptian lawyer Samir Sabri, who accused the channels and websites of intentionally working to spread Shia Islam to destabilise Egypt. “The presence of these channels and sites has so many negative effects on Egypt,” Sabri said. “They pose a real danger to Egypt’s religious and cultural identity.”

The court verdict does not name the Shia channels affected. Dozens of Shia channels are broadcast via Egyptian communications satellite series Nilesat. They include religious channels and some that have social content.

The court verdict orders the closure of Shia websites, including al-Nafis, which is owned and operated by Shia activist Ahmed Rasem al-Nafis.

Nafis, a medical doctor in his late 60s, has been accused of promoting Shia Islam in Egypt and nurturing ties with Shia clerics in Iraq and Iran. His site is not a religious one but contains articles that often defend Iranian policies in the region. He said the verdict to take down his site bodes ill for freedom of faith and expression in Egypt.

“It [the verdict] targets the site of a man who can do nothing but think and write,” Nafis said. “This is more than just an attack on a site that can be replaced with another,” he wrote on his site.

Nafis described the ruling as an “outdated” method to stop his ideas from reaching Egyptians and to prevent him from expressing himself.

Sabri’s lawsuit was seen as an aid to millions of Egyptian Salafists who had been fighting against Shia Islam.

The Salafists, ultraorthodox Muslims who claim to adhere to a purer version of Islam, even as some people view them as religious zealots, have been lobbying against Shia Islam, considering it heresy. They carried out campaigns against Shia Islam, trying to increase awareness of what they described as dangers inherent in the spread of Shia ideas.

In June 2013, a Salafist mob attacked a house in Giza province near Cairo, where Shias gathered to celebrate the birth of Imam al-Mahdi, believed by Shias to be the redeemer of Muslims. Chanting “Allahu Akbar,” the mob killed four people in the house.

However, this is less about animosities between Salafists and Shias and more about Egyptian fears of the expansion of Shia Islam in Egypt, analysts said. Deep under these fears are political, cultural and geostrategic conflicts between Egypt and Iran.

Egypt was believed to be the centre of the Islamic world for many years. It is home to al-Azhar, the epicentre of Sunni Islamic learning.

“Egypt has real fears from the expansion of Shia Islam in it,” said Mervat Zakaria, an Iranian affairs specialist at the Arab Centre for Migration and Research think-tank. “This expansion is strongly connected with Iran’s desire to expand its political influence.”

The conflict between Cairo and Tehran dates back hundreds of years but was re-energised by the 1979 Islamic Revolution and Iran’s mullahs’ support of the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, a close friend of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran before the revolution.

Relations between Tehran and the Palestinian faction, Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip on Egypt’s north-eastern border, are alarming to Cairo. Egypt views Iranian support to the Houthi militia in Yemen as putting security in the Red Sea in peril and endangering the Suez Canal.

The expansion of Shia Islam, Salafists said, hits at the heart of Egypt’s social and religious fabric. “This is why we have to do everything we can to stop this expansion,” Abdel Hamid said.

It is not clear how Egyptian authorities will enforce the court ruling and block Shia channels and take down Shia websites. Egyptian authorities have acted to pressure Shia citizens, including closing Shia centres and preventing them from entering important shrines, such as that of Al Hussein, near downtown Cairo.

The Egyptian Ministry of Islamic Endowments welcomed the verdict and said it would be a good step on the road of preventing divisions.

“We do not want divisions in our country,” said Sheikh Khaled al-Guindi, a member of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, the executive body of the ministry. “Shia channels do nothing but insult Sunnis and their religious symbols.”

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