SYRIAN OPPOSITION STATEMENTS DISAGREE ON APPROACHES TO RESISTANCE
The Syrian revolt against the Assad regime has been particularly intense in the city of Homs, as has been the regime’s violent response. Homs-based opposition leader and self-described “field coordinator of the revolution in Homs” Husayn Iryan recently described resistance operations in Homs in an interview with a pan-Arab daily (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 12). An industrial city of 1.5 million, Homs is located 160 km north of Damascus. The majority of its residents are Sunni Muslims, though there are significant minorities of Alawis and Christians. Armed clashes began in Homs in May, with the anti-regime Free Syrian Army launching operations in Homs in October.
Iryan presents an optimistic evaluation of the resistance efforts in Homs despite the daily “horrible crimes and massacres” perpetrated by the regime in that city: “Homs has managed in the last weeks to exhaust the Syrian regime and to weaken it to the extreme limits through non-stop protest movements despite all the restrictions, the siege and the massacres that the regime commits in the city against its sons.”
Iryan explains the viciousness of the regime’s crackdown on the opposition in Homs by pointing to four factors:
- The city’s proximity to Lebanon and the government’s fears that this might enable Homs to become “like Benghazi” and slip from the regime’s control.
- The Khalid bin al-Walid battalion of the armed opposition was formed in Homs, where splits in the regular army first occurred. The battalion, named for the 7th century Arab conqueror of Syria, is active in resisting the ongoing siege by loyalist forces. The formation of a second battalion of defectors called the Ali bin Abi Taleb Battalion (under the supervision of the Khalid bin al-Walid Battalion) was announced in the Homs Province city of Houla in late September (al-Jazeera, September 27).
- Homs was the first city to initiate civil disobedience, with citizens refusing to pay taxes and civil servants refusing to carry out their work.
- Revolutionary forces in Homs have inflicted casualties on the army, the intelligence services and government-sponsored “thugs” in the last few months.
For this resistance, Iryan says Homs, al-Qusayr and other towns and villages in the Homs Province had collectively suffered over a thousand dead, many of these consigned to mass graves. According to Iryan, even flight from Homs has become impossible due to the government cordon around the city: “Those who enter Homs can consider themselves doomed and those who manage to leave it consider that they have been given a new life.”
Unlike the militancy of the Homs opposition, a vastly different assessment of the Syrian revolution came in an interview with Hasan Abd-al-Azim, the general coordinator of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change in Syria. Al-Azim’s committee represents some fifteen political parties, including Arab leftist groups and some Kurdish political parties: “We have parties whose hands are not covered in blood and corruption. We are hoping to have a pluralistic, parliamentary, and democratic state and a new system that satisfies all the aspirations of the Syrian people…”
Al-Azim, whose movement favors an “Arab solution” and opposes foreign intervention or the imposition of a no-fly zone, speaks of a “peaceful revolution in Syria which has not used weapons or violence as Al-Asad’s regime is claiming” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 11). In asserting the possibility that real change can be brought about in Syria by peaceful protest, al-Azim overlooks numerous reports of violence and the attempted assassination of the Yemeni president to cite “the peaceful Yemeni revolution that has entered its tenth month without the people using weapons, though weapons in Yemen are available in all houses and streets.”
A veteran of various left-wing Arab nationalist parties, Abdul Azim has rejected a militant approach to the resistance, backing a moderate package of reforms leading to democracy that does not necessarily involve overthrowing the Assad regime (al-Akhbar [Beirut], September 21).
The disparate approaches to revolution in Syria in these two statements reflect the wider divisions that have plagued the Syrian opposition, differences that boiled over when some Syrian opposition figures were assaulted by other opposition members when they tried to enter the headquarters of the Arab League in Cairo for a meeting with the League’s secretary-general (al-Quds al-Arabi, November 11).
THE FATIMID RETURN: SHI’A POLITICS IN POST-REVOLUTION EGYPT
Dr. Ahmad Rasim al-Nafis, a 59-year-old physician and university professor, has formed a Shiite political party in overwhelmingly Sunni Egypt. Known as al-Tahrir (Victory) Party, the group is still awaiting approval from Egyptian authorities to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Religious-based political parties are banned under Egyptian law, but several Sunni and Salafist movements have managed to gain official endorsement for new religiously-inspired political formations. Though no official figure is available, there are believed to be between 15,000 to 20,000 Shi’a Muslims in Egypt, though some sources put the number as high as 60,000.
In a recent interview, Dr. al-Nafis denied that his party was sectarian in nature, claiming to have support from certain liberals, communists, Copts and Sufis (al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 13). According to al-Nafis, “If you want to classify us, we might call [al-Tahrir] a democratic, left-leaning, Islamic party… that calls on Egyptians to unite, follow the path of resistance and cut off the hand of American and Western hegemony in the region.”
News of the party’s formation has nonetheless angered Egypt’s Salafist community, which opposes the Shi’a as “a deviant group which believes in the hidden Imam,” as well as other various theological offenses. Salafist leader Dr. Gamal al-Marakibi has claimed the Tahrir Party will be controlled by Iran and act solely in its interests (Aljewar.org, May 25). However, a number of Egypt’s Salafist groups have been accused of receiving funds from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, with Salafists coming under criticism after Saudi flags were raised during a massive Salafist rally in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in late July (Ilaf.com, August 3).
Iran is eager to use the Egyptian Revolution as an opening for enhanced relations between the two countries, though Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad recently warned that “Enemies are concerned about the closeness of Iran-Egypt relations since they know there would be no place for the hegemonic powers if they stand by each other” (Bikya Masr [Cairo], November 8). Al-Nafis maintains that Egypt’s relations with Muslim Iran should at least be at the level of Cairo’s relations with Israel: “We should not be accused of treason because of our striving for this.”
Al-Nafis downplays the growing political rift between Sunnis and Shiites that has evolved into a type of Cold War between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran: "The matter of the Shiite minority and the Sunni majority does not occupy our minds. We are Egyptian Muslims. We are proud of our Islam and our Egyptian-ness. We are proud of our position in the community, a position that does not spring from sectarian affiliation." Nonetheless, sectarian tensions in Egypt have worsened as the result of a small but growing number of Egyptian Sunni Muslims converting to Shi’ism, partly as a result of the appeal of Lebanon’s Shi’a Hezbollah movement after its successful defense of southern Lebanon against Israeli invasion in 2006. Al-Nafis has firmly denied receiving Iranian funds to help spread Shi’ism in Egypt and claims such charges are only attempts to divide Egyptians through sectarianism.
Twelver Imami Shi’ism (al-Shi’a al- Imamiyah al-Ithna Ashariyah) was recognized as “a school of thought that is religiously correct to follow in worship” by the Shaykh of Cairo’s al-Azhar University, Mahmoud Shalut, in 1959 (al-Sha’ab [Cairo], July 7, 1959). Under pressure from senior Saudi Wahhabi scholar Sa’ad bin Hamdan al-Ghamdi over his recognition of Shi’ism as an acceptable form of Islam, Shalut’s successor at al-Azhar, Shaykh Ahmad al-Tayeb, reaffirmed the University’s position on Shi’ism in 2010. Nonetheless, Egypt’s growing Salafist movement is unlikely to take a positive view of the creation of a Shi’a-based political party in Egypt.
Egypt was once one of the world’s most important centers for Shi’ism when the Isma’ili Shi’a Fatimid dynasty of Tunisia took power in Egypt in 909 C.E. Following the overthrow of the Fatimid Caliphate by the Sunni Ayyubids in 1171, many Egyptian Shiites fled to southern Egypt or Yemen. Most Shi’a in modern Egypt are “Twelver” Imami Shiites settled along the Red Sea coast, descendants of immigrants from Lebanon and Iran.
Muhammad al-Darini, an oft-imprisoned leader in the Egyptian Shi’a community (and a convert from Sunni Islam), told U.S. Embassy officials in 2009 that Iran should not be equated with Shi’a Islam, noting that “Iran looks after its national interests first, not Shi’a interests.” In this sense, he suggested that Iran was more likely to deal with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood than Egypt’s Shi’a community (WikiLeaks; U.S. Embassy Cairo cable of March 31, 2009, released on August 20, 2011).