Mubarak’s Remarks… a Timely Surprise

Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak sparked a political storm when he cast doubt on the loyalty of the Shiaa community in Iraq in an interview with the Arabic channel Al Arabiya. “The loyalty of those Shiaa is to Iran, most of them are loyal to Iran,” he said.

His remarks drew varied reactions. In Iraq, leaders from across the political spectrum swiftly condemned the Egyptian President and demanded that he apologize. Elsewhere, Hassan Jawhar, a Shiaa lawmaker in Kuwait, criticized the remarks and pointed out that the Shiaa across the region did not need a pronouncement on their national loyalty from anyone. In a statement, the Saudi Shiaa Sheikh Hassan Al Safar, underlined the “cruelty and harm” of the remarks.

Was President Mubarak mistaken in his prognosis?

I received several emails from Iraqi readers. Salah Hadi said the Egyptian President’s reading of the situation was “correct and entirely on target”. While supporting Mubarak’s analysis, Ammar Al Jazairy, an Iraqi Shiaa, blamed Iran for giving up on the Shiaa in neighboring Iraq!

Others have totally rejected Mubarak’s remarks as damaging to the Shiaa community and accused the President, afraid for his personal safety, of wooing Sunni insurgents!

Notwithstanding these “impressions” on the Egyptian leaders’ comments, the most important aspect of his interview remains that no one should tarnish a group with the same brush; generalizing is wrong. This is an unscientific approach and it consecrates sectarianism. Individuals are united under a single group identity and the differences between the countries and societies to which the Shiaa belong are overlooked. Of course, the problems of the Shiaa community in Iraq differ to those of the Shiaa in the United Arab Emirates, or Qatar, or even Saudi Arabia. Their circumstances and their political, economic and social situation are not identical to those of the Shiaa in Iraq. They might share the same sectarian identity but they are different from one another; the Shiaa in Iraq are diverse. How can Muqtada Al Sadr be the same as Iyad Allawi or Baqir Jabr Solagh?

Mubarak’s remarks contain a grain of truth. Least of all, the loyalty of Muqtada Al Sadr and his supporters in Iraq or Hezbollah in Lebanon is clearly for Iran. Hassan Nasrallah, the General Secreatary of Hezbollah in Lebanon, has publicly declared his support for the “Iranian coalition”. This leads us to a fundamental question: who are the Shiaa loyal to? From the Egyptian President’s latest remarks, one can conclude this matter by asking: Is the Arab individual loyal to nation or ideology?

Moving away from Iraq, the Jordanian government led By Abdul Rauf Al Rawabida decided in late 1999 to ban Ibrahim Ghosheh, spokesman for Hamas and the head of its politburo, as well as to shut the movement’s offices in Amman. The Jordanian government realized it sought to protect its interests and wanted Hamas to stop claiming responsibility for military attacks and suicide bombings in the Palestinian territories. At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan vehemently protested against this decision. Observers pondered: to whom is the Islamist group loyal?

On a visit to Jordan last year, Dr. Bassam Al Ammush, a former official in the Muslim Brotherhood explained to me how he left the group after sensing their national allegiance was being supplanted by group ideology.

“Hamas used to make our youths uncomfortable and the government knew but disregarded this. If the situation worsened [the government,] would red card them and accuse a member of belonging to an illegal organization. Ghosheh used to announce Hamas’ military activities in Jerusalem from Amman. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood disagreed about [the government’s subsequent ban]. The question was: are we subjected to Jordanian law or not?”

I have included the above example in order to underline to the reader that I am not targeting one sect or another; we are all in the same boat!

To return to the discussion on sectarian strife in Iraq, as President Mubarak remarked, supported by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal, one is no longer faced with a uniting Iraqi nation but with two distinct worlds, one Shiaa and one Sunni. Some Iraqis belong to the first camp and others to the second, or at least, this is what the extremists want. Invisible trenches and borders now separate the two worlds in Iraq. Every sect has become armed and indiscriminate sectarian killings by Sadr’s Mahdi Army and Al Zarqawi’s followers- the face of Sunni terrorism- are now commonplace.

In response to a question about whether he feared Iraq might be plunged into civil war, a Sunni Iraqi leader replied that any talk of the absence of civil war was a lie. “We are truly in a civil war!” he said. He told me about the mass killings and crimes committed by the Mahdi Army against ordinary people solely because they are Sunni, and how a pregnant woman was forbidden from going to hospital because she was a Sunni. In order to save her life, she lied and told the militants she was Shiaa but married to a Sunni! The leader expressed hope that an Iraqi Christian would be appointed as Minister of Interior. This, he said, was the only way out of the sectarian inferno currently engulfing the country.

Unfortunately, despite the anger towards and reservations some people hold about Mubarak’s remarks because they reinforce sectarianism, reality is even bloodier. Perhaps the Egyptian President’s words might create a positive shock… perhaps we need even more shocks, positive or negative, before we become aware of the extent of the problem.