While the debate about the religious designation of political parties in Egypt has since the ouster of the former focused on Islamist groups, another dimension has been added to the issue with the imminent establishment of a Shiite party.
Prominent Shiite doctor and university professor Ahmed Rassem al-Nafees, who became known after converting from the Sunni faith, submitted a request to the Political Parties Committee, which is in charge of authorizing the formation of political parties, to establish al-Tahrir Party. The signatures Nafees collected included those from Copts, liberals, communists, and Sufis.
Several observers viewed the initiative with suspicion and questions were raised about to whom the party pledges allegiance and whether it has ties with Iran.
Egypt is already suffering from sectarian tensions between Muslims and Copts, and this party will start another conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, said Refaat al-Saeid, chairmen of the leftist al-Tagammu Party.
“Authorizing the establishment of this party is bound to threaten the security of Egypt because it will lead to more sectarian clashes and because we do not know who it is loyal to and whether it has ties with Hezbollah, for example,” he told Al Arabiya.
Saeid also objected to the fact that the party would be established on religious basis, which is both illegal and unconstitutional.
“Even parties like Freedom and Justice by the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nour Party by the Salafis were established as political parties with a religious reference but not as religious parties.”
Apart from the sectarian issue, Saeid questioned the way the party would benefit Egypt.
“This party will not add anything to the political scene in Egypt. On the contrary, it will just add more conflicts to it.”
Al-Taher al-Hashemi, the secretary general of the Hashemeya Sufi order and one of the party’s founders, stressed that having a Shiite founder does not mean that the party is Shiite.
“This is a liberal and civil party. Calling the party Shiite is the doing of other parties that play on the fear of the Shiite faith,” he told the official daily al-Ahram.
Hashemi explained that in Egypt there is a general concern over what is called “the Shiite infiltration” and this explains the way Shiites have always been treated as a threat to security.
“Even the number of Egyptian Shiites is kept secret.”
Ahmed al-Gammal, a Nasserist journalist and one of the founders of al-Tahrir Party, said there is nothing wrong with establishing a Shiite party.
“The Muslim Brothers have a party and so do the Salafis, so why shouldn’t the Shiites?” he told Al Arabiya. “Is it okay for some and not okay for others?”
Gammal said it would be unlikely that a sectarian conflict would ensue between Sunnis and Shiites if the party is authorized.
“The main references are the law, the constitution, and the principles of citizenship. As long as this party does not violate any of those, we cannot issue such hasty judgments and assume that certain people will behave in a certain way,” he said.
The party, Hashemi added, will represent Shiites in Egypt, yet the issue of Shiite rituals is not currently on the agenda.
“We are not discussing the establishment of seminaries like the ones in Iran at the moment. If in the future there is a need to tackle those issues, we will,” Hashemi said.
As for religious ceremonies exclusive to Shiites, Hashemi said they shouldn’t be a problem and cited the example of celebrating the birth of the 12 Imams.
“The celebration in these cases takes place inside the houses and is mainly about engaging in communal supplications to God.”
Islamist writer Fahmi Howeidi said the main question is whether a Shiite party would put national interests before sectarian.
“Another question is whether Egypt at the moment needs a Shiite party that will start a conflict between Sunnis and Shiites,” he told Al Arabiya.
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid)