While historically seeking to downplay religious differences between Sunnism and Shiism and rather to emphasize Islamic unity, the Muslim Brotherhood has been showing concerns about the spread of Shiism in Egypt, writes Jacques Neriah in Jerusalem Viewpoints (No. 591, Sept.-Oct. 2012).
According to estimates, there might be one million Shiites in Egypt (one percent of the total population). Part of the Shiite population is made up of the descendants of Iranians who came to the country in the nineteenth century. Another part is made of Muslims who converted from Sunnism to Shiism after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, many of whom are former members of Islamist groups. Although there is no available statistical data, there might be up to dozens of thousands of converts.
They are reported often to disguise themselves as part of Sufi groups.Famous institutions, such as Al-Azhar University, had attempted to bridge the gap between Sunnites and Shiites for the sake of Islamic unity. After the revolution in Iran, however, fears of Shiite exports and Iranian plots surfaced in Egyptian government circles. Moreover, after initial sympathies for the Iranian revolution, many Islamic activists became disappointed, perceiving it as a channel of Persian nationalism.
Many political factors deepened the divide, especially after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. In 2009 there was a wave of arrests of Shiites, who were accused of conspiring or of promoting Shiite doctrine in a way disparaging to Sunni beliefs. Shiites started to demand their rights after the 2011 revolution in Egypt. Some of their representatives do not only want full freedom to open their own places of worship, but also a quota in parliament. But Shiites continue to face various problems and constraints in their attempts to develop organizational structures in Egypt. Iran has been careful, since it does not want the development of Shiism and associated reactions to compromise its promotion of the cause of Islamic unity.
Salafi Muslims are strongly anti-Shia and the Muslim Brotherhood is torn over the issue. It would prefer to avoid becoming entangled in the controversy, since it is divisive for the “Muslim nation”. It accepts Shiites as Muslims, but conversions to Shiism—especially from its own ranks—are not easily accepted. President Mohammad Morsi, himself a member of the Brotherhood, has sent signals of a confrontational policy toward the Egyptian Shiite minority should its members affiliate with foreign countries such as Iran.(Jerusalem Viewpoints, http://www.jcpa.org)