Sisi’s Quest to Maintain ‘Moral Discipline’ Returning Egypt to Authoritarianism

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In a photo taken from the Facebook page "Freedom for Sherif Gaber," two people hold signs reading "Our children are the children of life not religion," and "Every thinker is inevitably an atheist." Photo: Facebook

By: Marwa Morgan

Published Monday, January 12, 2015

Since the ouster of former Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, Islamist groups have condemned what they call the “war on Islam,” and what the government refers to as the “war against terrorism.” The broad circle of persecution, however, reaches beyond religious beliefs.

Dar al-Iftaa, the state institution that releases Islamic religious edicts, verdicts and conducts research about religion, announced that the number of atheists in Egypt has reached 866 people. Their statement described this figure as a “dangerous development that rings alarm bells.”

Though there is no Egyptian law designating atheism a crime, atheists often face blasphemy charges, said Ishak Ibrahim, officer for Freedom of Rights and Belief at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), a local independent advocacy and research initiative that works in several fields including civil liberties and social rights.

Egyptian penal law states that insulting or ridiculing the heavenly religions is punishable by six months to five years in prison, and/or a fine of 500 to 1,000 Egyptian Pounds (EGP), the equivalent of $70 to $140. According to Ibrahim, the article is “vague” and fails to provide clear criteria for actions that fall under defamation of religion.

Egypt’s constitution guarantees “freedom of belief, thought, opinion, and expression” in articles 64 and 65. Religious freedom includes the belief and its expression, Ibrahim said. The cited term, “belief,” refers to absolute freedom which is not restricted to a particular faith.

Ibrahim argued that Egyptian defamation of religion laws violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Egypt signed in 1967. Article 18 of the ICCPR grants individuals the freedom to embrace any belief or religion and manifest their belief privately or publicly, individually or in a community.

In December of last year, local media outlets reported that police forces closed a coffee shop in the center of Cairo, which was referred to as Qahwat al-Molhideen (The Atheists’ Coffee Shop), and arrested its owner. Engineer Gamal Mohie Eldin, head of the Abdin municipality, told Al-Akhbar English that the café was closed a month before the reported incident for not having a license, and that the municipality “has nothing to do with politics or religion.” Yet, reports state that the coffee shop, which had served as a hub for young atheists, was closed as a part of the government's efforts to “confront atheism.”

Similarly, several Egyptians have been prosecuted for expressing their non-belief in public.

Sherif Gaber, a university student, was arrested in 2013 for creating a Facebook group for atheists. Gaber, who is still under prosecution for blasphemy, was reported by his fellow students, according to EIPR.

In addition to blasphemy charges, atheists face social and professional threats.

An Egyptian school librarian, Ayman Ramzy Botros, may lose his job after being referred to the administrative court in December for “promoting atheist ideas,” state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram reported. Born Christian, Botros was among a group of non-religious Egyptians who demanded representation in the committee that drafted the constitution, in an open letter they sent to the interim president, Adly Mansour, in 2013.

Karim al-Banna was handed out a sentence of three years in prison by the Idku District Misdemeanor Court on January 10, for the "contempt of Islam and insulting the divine." Banna, who had been released on a bail of 1,000 EGP ($140), was assaulted by his neighbors in November, after he expressed his non-belief on social media. Banna decided to report the incident, and was himself arrested at the police station for blasphemy, which Ibrahim said his own father supports.

Atheist blogger Ahmed Harqan was also assaulted in a police station in Alexandria, days after his appearance in a television show early in November, Ibrahim said.

“Some people feel responsible for the security of their beliefs,” he explained. “To them, that’s more important than people's security and freedom.”

Ibrahim added that states in “the east” consider belief “a collective matter rather than a personal freedom.” Instead of embracing religious diversity as an enriching phenomenon, the state tries to limit the number of religious groups.

“It's always said that there is no coercion in religion,” he said, referring to a verse in the Qu’ran. “But if you change your religion [in Egypt], you could get killed.”

The Egyptian government announced in 2014 that it will launch a campaign to “confront” atheism from both “therapeutic” and “educational” angles. The campaign resonates with what then-presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said in a television interview about the president's responsibility to maintain a collective “moral discipline.”

The government, however, did not declare war solely on atheism.

At least 150 people were arrested for homosexuality since November 2013 , according to EIPR. People accused of homosexuality are often examined to confirm their “habitual homosexuality.” Such procedures, which involve anal tests, violate “international standards against torture,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“These arrests represent another assault on fundamental human rights and reflect the Egyptian government’s growing disdain for the rule of law,” Graeme Reid, the director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Program at HRW, said in a statement.

Sisi vowed to fight terrorism after Mursi’s ouster. As a part of this “war against terrorism,” the Muslim Brotherhood was declared a terrorist group, thousands of its supporters were arrested, and its political party was dissolved.

The Ministry of Religious Endowments, which manages mosques, ordered all mosque imams to stick to a “unified sermon” during Friday prayers. The ministry specifies the topic of the sermon that is widely attended by Muslims every week.

“Going after atheists and other religious minorities, banning films – all this reveals the current pattern of authoritarianism” Ibrahim said. “We cannot separate this from the moral speech that is used.”

Marwa Morgan is a journalist and documentary photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. She is a former art and culture editor at the Daily News Egypt. Her work has appeared in Egypt Today, Community Times, National Geographic, Amnesty International and Open Democracy. She tweets at @marwamorgan.


Marwa Morgan and Al Akhbar have put their collective finger on the source of the problem in Egypt. It's not the coup, the mass-killings, the tightening of the siege of Gaza, nor the complicity of the West and its Gulf potentates in all this that is problematic. It is the loss of this coffee shop.
It seems the root of the Arabic term for Atheist is the verb meaning "to reduce". This story reduces the situation in Egypt to an absurdity. But that in itself is news: it reminds us of the claims made that the Twitter generation had overthrown Mubarak, and the seeming follow-on that this same Twitter generation then called on Sisi to overthrow the popularly-elected successor to Mubarak.
So is this story hinting that the Twitter generation regrets its actions or at least the rumors of those actions prevalent in the West and its colonies in the region?
Let's hear it for the Egyptian judges. It's hard to get a police officer to murder innocent people if he's not backed up by a corrupt judge.

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