By committing Egypt to a five-year human rights reform program, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not mince words on religion.
“If someone tells me that he is not a Muslim, a Christian or a Jew, or that he or she does not believe in religion, I will say to him: ‘You are free to choose’”, a- he said. “But will a society that has been conditioned to think a certain way for the past 90 years accept that?” “
The comment sent shockwaves through Egyptian society.
“Listening to him, I thought he was so brave,” said Samira Luka, senior dialogue director at the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. “Sissi is fighting not only a culture, but a dogma. “
Last month, the government released its first-ever National Human Rights Strategy after examining the way forward in 30 other countries, including New Zealand, South Korea and Finland. The head of the UN Human Rights Council hailed the 70-page document as a “key tool” with “concrete steps”.
The Egyptian constitution guarantees freedom of belief and worship and gives the force of law to international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But Article 98 of the Middle Eastern nation’s penal code provides for up to five years in prison for blasphemy and has been used against both atheists and Christians.
Will Sissi’s words signal a change?
Since his election in 2014, the Egyptian head of state has repeatedly spoken of the need to “renew the religious discourse”, launching a challenge to Muslim clerics. And before 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 identity card and inheritance,” Sisi said. “Have you ever thought about … looking for the way until you reach the truth?” “
The Egyptian identity card indicates the religion of each citizen. It can be changed in condition Muslim in case of conversion, but cannot be changed to Christian. Public figures called for the tag to be removed and a debate ensued when the new strategy was launched. Some argue that the religious domain of the ID is used by prejudiced government officials and private companies to discriminate against the minority religion.
Sisi’s “90-year” period roughly corresponds to the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. And Luka’s “dogma” indicates widespread social acceptance of interpretations of Islam that privilege the place of religion in law and culture.
According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims believe conversion outside of Islam should be punishable by death.
Calling for the application of Sharia law, the Muslim Brotherhood won the Egyptian presidency in 2012, before being toppled by then-defense minister Sisi the following year after massive popular protests.
Since then, Egypt has declared the group a terrorist organization and has decided to eliminate its influence from public life. Thousands, including unaffiliated liberal activists, are in prison or in voluntary exile. Bahey Eldin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), called the human rights situation in Egypt “catastrophic”.
Worried President Joe Biden withheld $ 130 million of $ 1.3 billion in annual aid to Egypt last month, conditional on the release of human rights and civil society activists.
Three days earlier — September 11 — Sisi launched the new human rights strategy to a national television audience. In addition to his comments on religion, he said 2022 would be “the year of civil society”.
But a new law passed this summer to regulate NGOs has been widely criticized by human rights defenders. And Hassan said the timing of 9/11 indicates the primary audience for the document. The same is true of the fact that the drafting committee was chaired by the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“Before it was released in Egypt,” he said, “the strategy was posted on the web page of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington.
A week later, the charges against four NGOs were dropped.
Egyptian Christians, however, are much less critical.
“This document is positive and important and will have an impact on the whole Egyptian mentality towards the other,” said Andrea Zaki, head of the Protestant Churches in Egypt. “The president, in his way of thinking, precedes all other political elites. “
The culmination of a process started in 2019, the human rights strategy also included the ministers of defense, interior, justice and general intelligence, among others. This is supposed to indicate political will; however, these departments are also accused of human rights violations far more than others.
Setting a five-year implementation deadline, the strategy is organized into four categories to encompass all of the necessary improvements: civil and political rights; economic, social and cultural rights; the rights of women, children, the disabled and the elderly; and general human rights education and capacity building.
Coptic orphans appreciated the broad emphasis, especially on development.
“For over 30 years, we have been present in almost every Egyptian community to promote better education, and through our ‘Precious Girls Program’ we are breaking down barriers between the Coptic and Muslim communities to ensure mutual social accountability.” , said Executive Director Nermien Riad.
“We believe this is the key to ensuring the Copts prosper in Egypt. “
Coptic Solidarity – from the Egyptian diaspora – interpreted it differently.
“This is pure public relations and propaganda,” said Lindsay Griffin, director of development and advocacy. “Human rights, in the traditional sense, are diluted and marginalized. And the abuses, therefore, are seen as secondary among other socio-economic issues. “
The Copts resigned themselves to Sisi as a “lesser evil” than the Brotherhood, Griffin said, comparing Egypt to America in the Jim Crow era. But worse, the human rights provisions of the constitution are not only ignored, but subjugated. Article 2 enshrines Islam as the religion of the state and the principles of Sharia law as the basis of legislation.
The contradictions become apparent especially when the Copts are attacked by the “fanatic population”. Rather than prosecute offenders, the state holds reconciliation meetings and presses Christian victims to drop charges.
“It is a completely interconnected and mutually reinforcing system of discrimination by government and society,” she said. “The culture of impunity only encourages further persecution.
But beyond the religious dossier, Griffin joined the secular CIHRS in deploring the flagrant political violations of human rights. These include the prolonged pre-trial detention and the indictment of peaceful searchers of terrorist designations, which also unfairly affects Coptic militants.
Three days after the strategic release, Patrick Zaki was finally brought to justice after 19 months in detention. Rami Kamel is still awaiting due process 23 months later. Both were involved in chronicling violations against the Coptic community.
Often repeated throughout the document, there was a recognition of “incorrect cultural heritages”. Michelle Dunne, Middle East Program Director for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, found the blame shift “ridiculous.” Although education is necessary, she saw an overall “basis of denial”.
Be patient, suggested Luka, who served on the strategy review committee.
“You can’t change everything in one step,” she said. “But with a specific timeline, we can measure to see if it’s implemented, or if it’s just words on paper.”
Each of the four categories is organized along three axes: legislative, institutional and educational development. Among the first, he recognizes the need for the law to provide guarantees for a lawyer if the defendant does not have the means. Defendants are not yet obliged to be told that they have the right to remain silent. In addition, the legal protection of witnesses and whistleblowers is insufficient.
Each section also describes recent reforms and efforts undertaken by the state. Identifying a “low legal awareness … of practices that constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”, in 2021, there were 127 human rights conferences within the Interior Ministry, which oversees the police.
In addition, citizenship committees have been created in 44 villages, often the site of sectarian tensions. These emphasize the equal rights of Muslims and Christians, while promoting the virtue of religious diversity.
The section on religious freedom highlights 15 “strengths and opportunities”, the highest number in the section on civil and political rights.
These include the creation of a supreme cabinet-level committee to combat sectarian incidents; removal of anti-tolerance material from the curriculum; and spending $ 70 million to restore Jewish synagogues and Coptic shrines along the Holy Family Road commemorating the stay of the baby Jesus in Egypt.
And since a 2016 law to regulate the building of churches, 1,985 former places of worship and unlicensed service centers have now been officially registered.
However, while the strategy is specific on legal issues, it does not detail religious issues. There is no mention of identity cards, conversion, reconciliation committees or a single law on the personal status of Christians – considered this summer as “immanent” – to let the minority regulate marriage, divorce and inheritance according to their faith.
Luka said a national strategy should not highlight the concerns of specific groups. But because of Sisi’s remarks, these issues are now mainstreamed into the public debate. She expects them to change gradually, over time and with consensus.
As for Rami Kamel, she said, “It might help speed up his trial.”
Luka does not have specific information about his case, but questioned the innocence assumption that many critical human rights defenders place on the accused. Everything is not presented to the public, she said, to decide “whether there is” government abuse.
But it is clear that there are challenges in Egypt, and the constitution must be implemented. It requires both culture change and economic development – and for the first time, Egypt has made a commitment to the world.
“This document is so important,” Luka said. “Listen carefully to what President Sisi said at the launch. We are so proud.