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Egypt’s President Promotes Religious Choice During Human Rights Rollout

Image: Mohamed el-Shahed / AFP / Getty Images
A neon sign portraying now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (center) between Coptic Pope Tawadros II (left) and Grand Imam of al-Azhar Shiekh Ahmed el-Tayeb (right) during a rally in Cairo in May 2014.

Committing Egypt to a five-year program of human rights reform, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did not mince words about religion.

“If someone tells me they are neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew, or that he or she does not believe in religion, I will tell them, ‘You are free to choose,’” he said. “But will a society that has been conditioned to think in a certain way for the last 90 years accept this?”

The comment sent shockwaves through Egyptian society.

“Listening to him, I thought he was so brave,” said Samira Luka, senior director for dialogue at the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. “Sisi is fighting not only a culture, but a dogma.”

Last month, the government released its first-ever National Human Rights Strategy after studying the path of improvement in 30 other nations, including New Zealand, South Korea, and Finland. The head of the UN Human Rights Council praised the 70-page document as a “key tool” with “concrete steps.”

Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and worship and gives international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the force of law. But Article 98 of the Middle Eastern nation’s penal code stipulates up to five years in prison for blasphemy and has been used against atheists and Christians alike.

Will Sisi’s words signal a change?

Since his election in 2014, Egypt’s head of state has consistently spoken about the need to “renew religious discourse,” issuing a challenge to Muslim clerics. And prior to the launch of the new strategy, his comments even hinted at a broader application than atheism.

“We are all born Muslims and non-Muslims by ID card and inheritance,” Sisi stated. “Have you ever thought of … searching for the path until you reach the truth?”

Egypt’s ID card indicates the religion of each citizen. It can be changed to state Muslim in the case of conversion, but cannot be changed to Christian. Prominent public figures have called to remove the label, and debate ensued at the new strategy’s launch. Some argue the ID’s religion field is used by prejudiced civil servants and private businesses to discriminate against the minority religion.

Sisi’s timeframe of “90 years” roughly corresponds to the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Luka’s “dogma” indicates a widespread social acceptance of interpretations of Islam that privilege the religion’s place in law and culture.

According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims believe converting away from Islam should be punishable by death.

Calling for the application of sharia law, the Brotherhood won Egypt’s presidency in 2012, only to be overthrown by then-defense minister Sisi the following year after massive popular demonstrations.

Since then, Egypt declared the group to be a terrorist organization, and has moved to eradicate their influence from public life. Thousands—including unaffiliated liberal activists—are in prison or self-imposed exile. Bahey Eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), called Egypt’s human rights situation “catastrophic.”

Concerned, President Joe Biden withheld $130 million of $1.3 billion in yearly aid to Egypt last month, conditioning it on the release of human rights and civil society activists.

Three days earlier—on September 11—Sisi launched the new human rights strategy to a national television audience. In addition to his comments about religion, he declared 2022 to be the “year of civil society.”

But a new law passed this summer to regulate NGOs was largely panned by human rights advocates. And Hassan stated that the 9/11 timing indicated the document’s primary audience. So too did the fact that the drafting committee was headed by the foreign minister.

“Before it was circulated in Egypt,” he said, “the strategy was published on the webpage of the Egyptian embassy in DC.”

A week later, charges were dropped against four NGOs.

Egyptian Christians, however, are far less critical…

This article was originally published at Christianity Today on October 18, 2021. Please click here to read the full text.

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