Considering Egypt’s wide-ranging political and economic crises, a recent national dispute might seem minor in the scheme of things, but it says volumes about the Middle East in the era of the Arab uprisings.
On April 1, more than 50 tourists from Iran visited Egypt— perhaps the first to do so since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, when ties between the two countries were severed after Egypt signed the peace treaty with Israel. The decision to welcome Iranians into the country was backed by President Mohamad Morsi and the Minister of Tourism, but fiercely opposed by Salafist groups and others. As leaders of the Freedom and Justice Party explained, when I was in Cairo two weeks ago, it was a pragmatic decision: Egypt needs tourists to aid its failing economy, and the Iranian market is not only virgin territory, but Iranians are not afraid to visit, no matter the chaos.
But for Salafists group, allowing Muslims who are Shi’a into the country risks they will try to convert Egypt’s majority Sunni population to their Islamic sect. At least this is what many Salafists told me. The issue has created so much controversy over claims of a “Shi’a invasion,” that on April 9, Egypt’s presidential spokesman said tourist flights from Tehran to Cairo would be suspended until June. He made the statement after a series of protests organized by Salafist groups, who clashed with police.
As someone who has been researching the escalating Shi’a-Sunni divide for more than a year (you can read my new paper here), I think this is a significant development. It is understandable that countries such as Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon, where sectarianism has had a long and sordid history, would be immersed in the conflicts we are seeing today. But why Egypt, where there is virtually no history of such sectarian sentiments, at least not among Muslims?
There are a few reasons sectarianism has now sparked emotion, fear, and political dilemmas in Egypt: Some Salafists consider Shi’a Muslims to be heretics, since the split in Islam occurred and Shiism became a separate doctrine in the ninth century. As a result, there is a perception among Salafist groups, not only in Egypt but in Lebanon and other countries, that Iran intends to invade Sunni lands, now that Syria could fall from Alawite control to Sunni domination. In other words, in anticipating the loss of Syria, the Salafists believe Iran is now looking to make other conquests.
Iranian officials have tried to assure the Egyptians this is not their objective. Iran’s charge d’affaires, Mojtaba Amani, said in comments carried by the Egyptian state news agency MENA after a Salafist protest at his home in Cairo, that allegations Shiism was being spread in Egypt were a “major lie.”
But the Salafists think otherwise. “We have evidence the Shi’a plan to marry Sunni women and promise them a better life and then they will have to convert,” one Salafist leader told me.
And it is not only the Salafists who are nervous about President Morsi’s warm overtures toward Iran. Some religious scholars at Al Azhar, the mosque and university complex that is the seat of learning for Sunni Muslims, also told me they feared Iran was trying to spread Shiism in the Sunni world.
The feelings expressed by the Egyptians reflect alarm across the region— which perpetuated by Saudi Arabia and Iran itself. One only needs to read the statements in the Iranian-state run media each day laying claim to all Muslims and praising what Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei calls the “Islamic awakening” when referring to the Arab uprisings. But what Khamenei fails to acknowledge is that many Sunni Muslims have no intention of embracing Iranian overtures and, in fact, as the war in Syria rages on, animosity toward Iran, President Bashar al Assad’s main patron escalates, and the sectarian divide deepens.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.