by Elliott Abrams February 20, 2012
The Baha'is of Egypt have been subjected to persecution and systematic oppression. While their quest for equality has been finally heard by many of their fellow citizens, there remain challenges and obstacles to the implementation of laws intended to grant them their full civil rights and equal opportunity in their society. With the emergence of the new Egypt, they are now being given the opportunity to actively engage in rebuilding their nation.
The Baha’i have long been under attack in Iran, as I have discussed on this blog.
They have also faced a history of persecution in Egypt, under the Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak regimes. The Muslim Brotherhood as well has long viewed the Baha’i as heretics who should not receive legal protections.
Abdel Moneim al-Shahat, a Salafi leader in Alexandria, last month threatened publicly that “We will prosecute the Bahai’s on charge of treason. We as Salafis refuse to deal with Baha’is, because they do not exist by virtue of their faith.” While Shahat is an extremist and failed to win a seat in parliament, he remains a leader of the Salafist Nour Party and one of its spokesmen. He urged that Egypt’s new constitution not protect the rights of Baha’i on the grounds that they do not belong to a recognized religion.
The situation of the Baha’i constitutes a test for the new “moderate” Muslim Brotherhood leadership and for Egypt’s new government. There are no more than 2,000 Baha’i there, so they are without political influence and lack the numbers to even attempt to protect themselves–unlike Coptic Christians, who in Egypt number perhaps ten million. If the Brotherhood and the Salafis pursue this tiny community, we will be forced to conclude that hopes for Egypt must be scaled far back. It is worth adding that defense of the Baha’i is also a test for the millions of non-Salafist, non-Brotherhood Egyptian organizations and for Egyptian leaders and would-be leaders–starting with the influential Egyptian Judges Club, for example, and with Amre Moussa, former Arab League Secretary General and the leading presidential candidate. Perhaps even more than the treatment of American and other pro-democracy NGOs, the Baha’i are the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to judging whether Egypt will move toward respect for human rights, protection of minorities, and a state based on law.