Whereas Egypt’s minorities and liberals oppose its blasphemy law, a majority of its decision-makers and ideologically-entrenched public opinion seem set on keeping Islam “ring-fenced” through the country’s penal code.
On June 12, 2016, the Egyptian government clearly stated its opposition to scrapping a part of Article 98 of the Egyptian Penal Code which significantly penalises “defamation” of “religions” with a 6-month to 5-year prison sentence.
The legal ambiguity of “defamation”, coupled with a track record of using this Article against Copts and liberals, has, according to its detractors, rendered it unfit to stand with a constitution that, at least in theory, guarantees freedom of expression.
“Defamation of religions” was added to the Egyptian penal code, under Article 98/F, in 1981, following deadly clashes between Christians and Muslims in a Cairo suburb. At the time, radical Islamists were using the pulpits of mosques to insult Christians and non-Sunni Muslims.
The contentious Article prohibits “making use of religion in propagating, either by words, in writing, or in any other means, extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion or a sect following it, or damaging national unity.”
And it is the second part, “ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion”, that has been used as ammunition against those accused, rightly or wrongly, of expressing views deemed “blasphemous” to Islam.
Egyptian civil rights lawyer Hamdi al-Assyouti estimates that 90% of blasphemy charges are filed against Christians.
Article 2 of Egypt’s constitution unequivocally enshrines Islam as “the state religion” and principles of Islamic Sharia as “the main source of legislation”. This often makes “protecting” the religion take precedent over any other consideration.
The mere phrase “insulting a heavenly religion” naturally draws from Islam’s understanding of itself, and its own version of Christianity and Judaism.
According to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), alleged blasphemy cases increased from three in 2011 to 12 in 2012. Thirteen cases were recorded in 2013, and of 42 defendants in recent years, 27 were convicted. EIPR lead researcher Ishak Ibrahim told World Watch Monitor that 17 new cases were filed in 2015 alone.
In February 2015, three Christian teenagers were sentenced to five years in prison for a video clip that mocked the Islamic show of piety by jihadists beheading people. Mueller Edward, Bassem Hanna, and Albert Ashraf were convicted by a court in the town of Bani Mazar in Minya. A fourth, Clinton Youssef, was ordered to be placed in a juvenile facility.
In June 2014, nineteen-year-old Kyrellos Shawqi Attalla, a Copt, was sentenced to six years for “a Facebook ‘like’ deemed offensive to Islam”.
In June 2013, Damiana Abden-Nur, a Copt primary school teacher, was condemned for offending Islam and Muhammad during class and fined EGP100,000 (equiv. to 50 months’ salary).
In September 2012, Bishoy Garas, a Christian, was sentenced to six years for offending Islam through a social media contested account.
In September 2012, two Coptic boys, Nabil Rizk, 10, and Mina Farag, 9, were accused of “desecrating the Quran”, and briefly remanded in a juvenile facility while Christians in their local town of Fashn, Beni Suef, were threatened by radical Islamists.
Since Egypt’s popular uprising on 25 January 2011, EIPR has listed more than 10 cases of people accused of “defamation” including Albert Saber an atheist Copt, lawyer Romani Murad – another Copt, Mustapha Hassan, an Ahmadi and Mohamed Assfour, a Shiite.
Abu Islam, a Salafist leader, was sentenced in December 2013 to five years after he burned a copy of the Bible in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the rule of former president Mohamed Morsi. His is one of the rare cases in Egypt of a Muslim being charged for an alleged insult to Christianity.
Two high-profile cases against researcher Islam el-Behery, and liberal Muslim poet and writer Fatima Naaout revived calls for a review of the defamation Article. Behery was sentenced in January 2016 to one year for stressing canonical texts of Islam were conducive to terror, while Naaout was sentenced the same month to three years for saying she was aghast at the mass slaughter of animals during Eid-ul-Adha (the Muslim feast of ‘Sacrifice’).
So in June 2016, as World Watch Monitor reported at the start of this article, some 99 MPs out of Egypt’s 596-seat House of Representatives backed a proposal by Amnah Nuseir, an MP with an academic background in humanities, to amend or scrap the current “defamation” article.
Nuseir’s proposal follows at least three similar bids in March and April of 2016, while in February 2016, Christian MP Mona Mounir floated a proposal to repeal the blasphemy clause, stating it to be contradictory to Article 64 of the Constitution on freedom of belief.
The drive to repeal Article 98/F is up against staunch opposition including by fundamentalist Salafist members of parliament, an opposition that threatens to increase the penalty rather than decrease or scrap it if the “secular” wing pushes it “too far”.
A historic legacy
Over the course of the twentieth century, prominent writers, such as Taha Hussein and Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, had to answer in court for novels or articles that questioned some core tenets of Islam.
What Egypt, like many other Muslim-majority states, finds problematic is that while some wish to take forward the process of modernisation (started late in the 19th century), societies are mainly entrenched around sources of Sharia which over centuries have been codified into rulings.
These rulings invariably agree a blasphemer must be punished, often by death.
Public institutions, including education, media, judiciary and the country’s topmost Islamic authority, Al-Azhar, unremittingly hail Islam’s tradition and its historic extrapolation as both model and, whenever possible, binding. Lack of present-day application is therefore something governments have struggled to justify.
In 2015, Al-Azhar was instrumental in taking Islam el-Behery’s show off air. Behery was later served his prison sentence.
Egypt is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whose Article 19 guarantees freedom of expression. In 2011, The UN Human Rights Committee noted that blasphemy laws were “incompatible with the Covenant.”