ZAWIYAT ABU MUSALLEM, Egypt – Egypt’s government promised “exemplary punishment” on Monday after the mob killing of four villagers near Cairo raised fears of wider sectarian bloodshed at a time of grave national crisis.
But Shia minority leaders and the liberal opposition accused the government itself, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, of whipping up sectarian anger over the war in Syria as a means of appeasing its own hardline Salafist allies.
President Mohamed Mursi, under pressure from the army to end broader factional violence, condemned “this heinous crime” and promised “swift justice”. Al-Azhar, Cairo’s leading Sunni religious establishment, said the killings were contrary to the teachings of Islam and urged “harshest punishment”.
In Sunday’s violence in the suburb of Zawiyat Abu Musallem, in sight of the Giza pyramids, a crowd incited by Takfiri extremists ransacked and torched the house of a family, whose members said the attack began when a Shia dignitary visited them for a religious festival.
Prominent Egyptian Shia cleric, Sheikh Hassan Shehata, and four of his devotees were killed in the brutal attack carried.
Brutal scenes of the crime were posted on the internet late Sunday, showing men dragging Sheikh Shehatas bloody body , one pulling on what may be a rope around his neck, on the street and beating him as the Sheikh chanted Allahu Akbar [God is Great].
Hazem Barakat, an eyewitness and photojournalist, who reported the incident live on Twitter, took photos and videos showing one of man being dragged in the street after being beaten. “I saw several men stabbed several times while they were being dragged in some sort of public lynching,” said Barakat.
The dead included 66-year-old Hassan Shehata, a prominent Shia figure who was jailed twice under former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak for “contempt of religion.”
Sheikh Shehata was dragged in the streets after being stabbed and killed. Images showed Shehata being beaten and kicked as his lifeless body was being dragged for show.
The police force came late according to eyewitnesses and did nothing to stop the attack and public lynching. “They were just watching the public lynching like anyone else and did not stop anything,” said Barakat.
A government statement issued for Prime Minister Hisham Kandil said he “strongly condemned the terrible incident” and a accused the attackers of importing “sectarian strife” of a kind alien to Egyptian society. He would “ensure justice is done and that the culprits are made examples of by deterrent punishment”.
But Mohamed Ghoneim, a leading figure in a Shia community, was quoted by state newspaper website al-Ahram saying the Muslim Brotherhood was trying to appease hardline Salafist allies by not shielding Shias from attack.
Opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood also accused the movement and President Mursi of stirring up sectarian passions by joining this month in Sunni calls for jihad against Syria’s president and his Shia allies from Lebanon and Iran.
The opposition Dustour Party said in a statement that it saw “this heinous crime as a direct result … of the disgusting religious hate speech that goes on escalating with the knowledge of the regime and the blessings of the president”.
But Essam el-Erian, deputy leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, insisted the movement condemned the killings – comparing them to the deaths of its own Islamist allies and supporters in factional clashes in recent days.
“It is forbidden to Muslims to spill Egyptian blood,” he wrote on Facebook. “All Egyptian blood – Muslim or Christian, man or woman, Sunni or Shia, civilian or police. Whoever takes part in shedding blood, even in words … or by hate speech, is taking part in a terrible crime.”
He said Egypt would not slip into civil war and that the army stood ready to step in and defend the nation.
Mursi and the Brotherhood angered their Salafist allies by trying to improve ties with Iran since Mursi was elected a year ago. But as the Syrian civil war has inflamed sectarian passions across the Middle East, Mursi and the Brotherhood joined a Sunni conference in Cairo this month that condemned President Bashar al-Assad and his allies.
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