Religious freedom at stake in Egypt

By Osama Diab

If you don't during in , lie about it; hide it. Otherwise, you might land in jail.

26 August 2010

Tarek Elshabini, a 21-year-old engineering student, is , but only according to his personal ID card. Every year when Ramadan comes, he faces a dilemma: he doesn't fast because he's an atheist, but everyone, including officers, expects him to fast because he was born to a Muslim family.

In order to avoid any possible clashes between Elshabini and his family due to his non-religious credos, he decided to move away for a while until they are able to live with this new reality. Most families, in what was called the most religious country in the world by Gallup, would find it bitter to swallow the fact that their son does not believe God exists.

Elshabini managed to find a job in Hurghada as a bar tender in a night club to make his getaway, and on his second day in the Red Sea tourist city, he had to go to the police station to acquire the certificate of good conduct required by his new employer. After a few hours of struggling with governmental bureaucracy, Elshabini got his clean criminal record and was out of the police station at noon.

To kill his thirst, Elshabini stopped at the kiosk across from the police station for a soda. He stood there, bought a can of soda and lit a cigarette. Elshabini had no idea that last Ramadan at least 150 people were arrested in Aswan and Hurghada, where he just arrived, for eating, drinking or/and smoking in broad daylight during Ramadan. This was new and it was the first time it had occurred in Egypt.

It wasn't the last time though. This year, two micro-bus drivers were also arrested in Cairo for the same reason. A Ramadan crackdown was also carried out by police officers in Hurghada to arrest those who eat, smoke or drink publicly before sunset.

While Elshabini was smoking his cigarette and drinking his soda, a plain-clothed officer came up to him and asked what his name was before he invited him into the police station. “At this point, I thought that I might have forgotten something inside while getting my papers, and this very nice man was going to help me get it,” explains Elshabini.

The officer knew from his middle name, Ahmed, that he was a “Muslim”.

In Egypt, personal ID cards state the citizen's religions. The government of Egypt only recognises the three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Therefore, atheists like Tarek, have to state one of these religions in their ID cards.

The officer then told Elshabini he was arrested on the charge of “public breaking of the fast” and locked him up in detention. For three hours, no one would talk to him or tell him what was happening until the officer who arrested him came back. “I kept telling him I was sorry, and that I forgot that it was Ramadan and that I was ; anything just to get myself out of this,” says Elshabini.

Heba Morayef, a Human Right Watch researcher, explains that there is no such as “public breaking of the fast”. “The arrest of people for smoking in public during Ramadan is illegal under both Egyptian and international law. These arrests are arbitrary in the absence of any legal provisions under Egyptian law,” says Morayef.

After three hours of begging, Elshabini was finally released. “I'll believe you this time, and I'll let you off with no police report. How's that for a favor?” Elshabini says the officer told him.

Morayef also believes that these arrests seem to be occurring as a result of initiatives of individual police stations rather than a top-down policy by the ministry of interior. She believes, though, that this does not absolve the government of the responsibility for these illegal arrests. “The government must clearly issues instructions that its security officers do not have the right to arrest people who appear not to be fasting,” she adds.

“Ramadan is the time of year that I would very much like to disappear from the face of the earth. Everybody is badly infected with this mass religious hysteria, and people start to interfere in other people's business,” says Elshabini.

The story of Elshabini shows how Egypt's relatively secular police is becoming increasingly intolerant when it comes to freedom of . It also demonstrates the government's failure to acknowledge that there are people who might not believe in Islam, Christianity or Judaism. Egyptian law still does not address this issue either. Until last year, members of the Baha'i faiths had to write Muslim on their ID cards because the law does not recognise the Baha'ism as a religion. Last year, the court allowed Baha'is to choose to leave the religion field blank.

These arrests also show that freedom of religion and is in danger in Egypt which has always been known for its relative religious tolerance, especially in contrast with more theocratic regimes in the region, such as and most of the Gulf countries, Sudan and Iran, but for a second year in a row, this seems to be changing, at least on an unofficial level.

“After three of the most humiliating hours in my life, I couldn't believe what was happening. At some point, I thought that this was a TV show or something; that this was a trick, but unfortunately, every part of what happened was real,” says Elshabini.

However, many Egyptians are against these arrests. A facebook group called ‘Egyptians from all beliefs are against the arresting of non-fasters in Ramadan' attracted some 800 members in just a few days. “Respect expected by people who fast should be based on personal choice,” says Hany Freedom, the creator of the online group who chose to go by his Facebook name. “Otherwise, how would the faster know if others are considerate out of conviction or only because they are forced to.”

This article first appeared in The Staggers blog of The New Statesman on 23 August 2010. Republished here with the author's permission. Read comments on this article here. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.

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