The Plight of Religious Minorities in Egypt

The fall of dictators in the Arab Spring has left a legal and political vacuum which various extremist movements now seek to exploit as an open forum to spread their ideological message. Especially when these groups are composed of religious radicals, severe threats to the security of minority groups in the region can arise. In Egypt, Coptic Christians who make up roughly 10% of the population, as well as various non- Sunni Muslim groupings and even atheists have become frequent targets of violent verbal and physical attacks. Anger, hatred and frustration about the socio-political conditions are often projected onto these minorities.

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Although Coptic Christians have been discriminated against in Egypt for a long time, the scale of brutality and the frequency of attacks on churches in the post-Mubarak disorder seem to occur at a previously unseen pace. As the Egyptian legal system is not well established yet, failure to protect citizen’s human and civil rights is common. Therefore, crimes often go unpunished. Even though the new government has issued a symbolic law against discrimination of all kinds in October 2011, including a maximum penalty of three months in prison and a fine of up US$ 17,000, it is still poorly implemented. Every day Coptic Christians have to fear for their lives and are mostly unable to practice their religion without apprehension. “In January 2012, Gamal Abdou Masoud, 17, a Christian was tagged on Facebook in a picture that criticized Islam. Angry mobs surrounded and burnt his house and the houses of other Christians down, and forced his family to leave. The police did not arrest anyone from the mobs. Instead, Gamal was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting Islam”.” (Sanad, 2012) Sadly, this phenomenon of religious persecution can also increasingly be observed in other countries of the region such as Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Morocco.

However, disrespect of civil rights does not always come from within society, but also from the state itself, in which case atheists also find themselves in the line of fire.  Recent controversy resulted from multiple imprisonments of bloggers, such as Maikel Nabil Sanad, for declaring their atheist convictions online. Many were accused of blasphemy and consequently arrested, imprisoned and tortured. In spite of the fact that Egypt is a party to multiple international agreements which demand the promotion of religious freedom and freedom of expression, there are still several legal loopholes which enable the prosecution of those who speak up against the national government, the military, other governments and Islam.  Most perverted is the fact that not even children are spared from these witch trials. Two Christian children, 9 and 10 years of age, were arrested for playing with sheets of paper which happened to have Koran verses written on them. They are potentially facing a prison sentence of up to three years.

 In Egypt demands for the immediate introduction of Sharia law are increasing.  It is important to consider that President Mohamed Morsi won the election through the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups. Thus they are pushing for their interests to be implemented in the current establishment of a post- revolutionary constitution. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, there are Salafist protests almost every week in Cairo and other parts of the country.  Egypt traditionally has a Sunni heritage. Now Salafists are looking to radicalise the country “Saudi style”. On November 2nd, for instance, over 10 000 Salafist protestors gathered in Cairo, demanding the immediate implementation of Islamic law. After all, it is them who were influential in overthrowing the previous authoritarian government to create a state which can truly protect and represent their needs and interests. Then why shouldn’t they be allowed to do so?

Internal divisions between secularists, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists became visible. Whereas Salafists are pushing for an immediate implementation of the law, the Muslim Brotherhood would favour a gradual introduction. However, not only the national public is divided over the issue whether and how Egypt should implement Sharia law; it has become an issue of international concern for various reasons.

What if the idea of democracy the new government will implement does not correspond to our Westernized notion of democracy and the inherent concept of Human Rights? In this context, it would be interesting to explore how we are dealing or how we think we should be dealing with religious minorities who live in European countries and do not necessarily share the common Western value system. If we are consistent in our position, then the religious minorities irrespective of their geographic location should be treated equally.

But what would the introduction of the Islamic law (Sharia) mean in practice? A decrease in civil liberties and Human Rights? A second Iran? Further persecution of Coptic Christians and atheists in the region?  A higher flow of religious and political refugees into European countries? More terrorist threats and attacks? These are all very real potential hazards of a further radicalisation of North African states. Western governments feel threatened.  But what should they do? Stand back and watch one state after another transform into an extremist Islamic state disrespecting Human Rights by employing Sharia law? Do we have the right to intervene and if yes, how? What are the diplomatic and strategic means available to us which help us ensure that Egypt’s new constitution will uphold Human Rights and protect all citizens of the state, including religious and other minorities?

Considering that President Morsi was elected through Islamist forces, it is highly unlikely that he will be eager to separate religion from politics in order to protect minorities. However, is forced secularization lawful, morally permissible and in fact necessary? Is it possible and if yes how should it be implemented? These are very sensitive questions juxtaposing a country’s quest to attain the right of sovereignty and self-determination after a revolution versus the international community’s responsibility to protect the Human Rights and civil liberties of the individual.

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