By Osama Diab
Police in Egypt are using Ramadan to target secularists. The government must do more to protect individual liberty.
16 September 2009
Over the last week, several blogs have included reports about the Egyptian police arresting people for eating and smoking publicly during the day in Ramadan, when Muslims are supposed to be fasting. At first I thought this might just be the action of a few individual officers or – since the blogs did not cite a source – perhaps it was nothing more than a rumour. I was shocked to discover that not only was it true, but it was also actually a campaign sponsored by Egypt's interior ministry.
A judicial source in the attorney general's office told the al-Shorouk newspaper that eating in public in Ramadan is elet adab (lack of decency), and added that the interior ministry issued a decree several years ago that gave police officers the right to arrest and fine anyone found eating publicly during Ramadan. Newspaper reports suggest that police have arrested more than 155 people, mainly in the tourist city of Aswan.
The interior ministry has defended the campaign and its spokesman, general Hamdy Abdel-Karim, hit back at criticisms from human rights organisations saying: “They should learn to have some measure of decency. In the past, Egyptians used to be decent. I hope they return to it.”
The increasing popularity of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood has forced the government to adopt a more righteous stance. The regime is keen to prove it is as pious as the Brotherhood, but, in a nation that was named by Gallup as the most religious country on the planet, the campaign is also an attempt to contain public discontent over some of the government's secular practices.
More importantly, the comments on the al-Shorouk newspaper's website all supported the police's actions. Part of the shock is that al-Shorouk is a progressive newspaper, attracting some of Egypt's most prominent liberal writers such as Alaa el-Aswany, the author of the controversial bestselling novel The Yacoubian Building, which bravely tackled many of Egypt's taboos such as homosexuality, police brutality and Islamic extremism. I scanned all the comments for anyone who believes that the decision to fast is an individual's personal choice, and not something the one should be punished for, but to no avail.
Putting the political goals of this action aside, the support it received shows a great deal of religious insecurity. Many god-fearing people still believe that if laws don't enforce religious practice, at least publicly, things might get out of control and it might become commonplace to see people eating or smoking during a Ramadan day.
Such campaigns encourage people to indulge behind closed doors, which leads to the creation of more taboos and promotes hypocrisy in the society. President Barack Obama said in his Cairo speech last June that “suppressing ideas won't make them go away”. Similarly, criminalising fast-breaking during Ramadan won't make violators stop doing it.
Religious groups seem reluctant to engage in open debate, but rather resort to force to get their ideas through. They should accept the fact that in Egypt there are people who prefer not to fast, who are also citizens of this country and have an equal right to practise their religious (or non-religious) credos freely.
This incident also provides evidence that the Egyptian police force continues to act as little more than a political tool in the regime's hand rather than acting as a law enforcement authority to protect people's freedoms, regardless of the political atmosphere of the time.
In the face of pressure from religious groups who are using their political capital to fight for yet more measures to ‘protect' religious values, the government should remember that human rights and individual liberty are also values that need protection.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 16 September 2009. Read the related discussion. Reprinted here with the author's permission. © Osama Diab. All rights reserved.