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Will Blasphemy Laws Derail the Egyptian Revolution?

A draft constitution contains some new free speech protections, but most still favor an Islamic foundation to civil law.

Last year tens of thousands of Egyptians successfully toppled the dictatorial regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who for decades had used the military and its dungeon-like prison system to persecute and torture political enemies and perceived threats to the state.

Since then, Egypt’s robust constitutional process, which produced a draft constitution in October, has emphasized new protections for free expression and peaceful protest. Yet anti-blasphemy laws still exist in the penal code, and the new government under President Mohammed Morsi–a former top official in the Muslim Brotherhood–is wielding them and other speech laws with righteous vigor, according to reports from Egypt today.

The current blasphemy law states:

Confinement for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or a fine of not less than five hundred pounds and not exceeding one thousand pounds shall be the penalty inflicted on whoever makes 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.

A “heavenly religion” in this case includes the approved religions–Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–though the law has been used primarily to protect Muslims. Christian converts in particular have been targeted for “publicly announc[ing] their conversion or appear[ing] to be proselytizing,” according to Human Rights Watch, which documented non-religious restraints on free speech and expression in the Egyptian penal code in 2009:

Article 179 calls for the detention of “whoever affronts the president of the republic.” Article 102(bis) allows for the detention of anyone “whoever deliberately diffuses news, information/data, or false or tendentious rumors, or propagates exciting publicity, if this is liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest.” These broadly-worded provisions invite abuse and contravene international standards of freedom of expression, particularly in their vague and sweeping restrictions, and the use of prison for the peaceful exercise of free speech and comment, and criticism of the government.

Going forward, if these laws remain in effect, a large swath of those responsible for the democracy movement could be put in the government’s crosshairs: political dissidents, atheists, Christians, journalists and bloggers, scholars, publishers, human rights activists, political pundits, novelists, artists, filmmakers, politicians, and liberal reformers.

Such is the complexity of Egypt’s political landscape as it enters the newest phase of an “Arab Spring,” which began in 2011 and is still very much evolving. The challenge here is to balance two critical realities. First, Egypt’s strong Islamic foundation codified in law and in its constitution (which a strong majority of the populace still favors, to some degree), and the non-sectarian, non-Islamist interests of the minority, many of whom risked life and limb in Tahrir Square; the institutional authoritarian impulses to control personal expression and dissident behavior and a burgeoning public desire for broader, 21st century freedoms (tempered, always, by the country’s predominantly religious complexion).

In a terse commentary published on October 19, Egyptian Maikel Nabil Sanad reported that many fellow bloggers have been jailed and prosecuted under current law since Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Salafists won a majority in the new parliament in January. In fact, it would seem that the “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” saying applies, as security forces have harassed and detained individuals for what they are tweeting, blogging and Facebooking on the Internet.

“Egypt has signed many international treaties that ensure freedom of expression, but the Egyptian penal code still has approximately 20 laws that make certain opinions a crime,” Sanad wrote in Foreign Policy. “The specified offenses include criticizing the president, the parliament, the military, or the judiciary. Criticizing a foreign president, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Bashar Al-Assad, is also a crime, punishable with a three-year term in prison.”

Sanad, who says he is under investigation by the Egyptian General Prosecutor for tweeting about his atheist beliefs, added:

The latest threat of legal action against me has also stirred up memories of my previous imprisonment last year, when I was imprisoned in Egypt for 10 months for the crime of “insulting the institution of the military.” Since then, two corrupt police officers, Sayyed Abdel-Kareem and Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, have declared that they want to file an additional case against me. They’re both accusing me of insulting Islam during my imprisonment in El-Marg Prison. They’ve tried to use this new case as a form of blackmail to keep me from speaking about the torture I faced while I was there. …

…. There are at least six Christians (three of them under the age of 18), four atheists, and one Shiite who now face the same charges, and it is no surprise that not one of them is a Sunni Muslim. It’s a new Inquisition happening in Egypt in the twenty-first century while the whole world remains silent.

In October, two Coptic Christian boys, ages nine and ten, were arrested and charged in Beni Suef when a local sheik alleged that they urinated on a copy of the Quran (other sources suggest that the boys had torn up papers that included verses from the holy book). According to the latest reports, they are being held in a juvenile detention center on charges of insulting Islam.

“This is what anti-blasphemy laws inevitably lead to: the arrest and persecution of religious minorities, including children, in order to ‘protect sensibilities’ of religious majorities. What it shows is that anti-blasphemy laws have nothing to do with ‘respect’ or ‘sensitivity’ to religious sentiments but are all about authority, control and social domination,” charged Hussein Ibish, Senior Fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, in a recent op-ed at The Daily Beast.

So far, however, efforts to fully ratify anti-blasphemy provisions in the new Egyptian constitution have been stymied. In fact, far from being railroaded by the Muslim Brotherhood, the constitutional process has reflected the hard slog of democracy. Sure it’s flawed–Nathan J. Brown of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace recently wrote that the process might be “too transparent,” a “wiki-constitution” in which myriad stakeholders are represented in the Constituent Assembly, and engaged in writing the new blueprint for Egypt in “a consensual fashion,” by committee. This has led to a chaotic, confusing and frustrating scene, with draft provisions being leaked to the press and constantly adjusted and scrapped on the spot to accommodate concerns and compromises among representatives of the Brotherhood, hardliners, liberals, minorities, and institutional interests like the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), local officials, and the military judiciary.

This messy process has resulted in a mixed bag for reformers, according to writers Erin Cunningham and Heba Habib. The “good,” Cunningham and Habib point out, is the abolition of military trials for civilians, as well as the decriminalization of protests and strikes, term limits for the president, and the inclusion of a “Rights, Freedoms and Duties” section that insists “every human is permitted to express thoughts and opinions through speech, writing, images or any other method of publication or expression.” The hardliners wanted a stricter interpretation of sharia law in civil legislation, but so far it will remain the same as the current constitution, which proclaims sharia “principles” as the main source of law, not sharia “rulings,” which would have been more strict and constraining.

The “bad”: torture is not banned under the draft constitution. While the draft gives some additional rights to Christians and Jews, there are no new protections for other religious minorities in Egypt, and it enshrines Sunni Islam as the nation’s official religion. After all of the tussling over women’s rights, women are granted equality with men–but only so far as it does not contradict “the rulings of sharia,” leaving women’s liberation subject to religious circumscription.

As for anti-blasphemy laws, religious hardliners had pushed (albeit unsuccessfully) for them to be folded into the constitution, especially after the now infamous, crudely-made YouTube video insulting Muslims went viral on the Internet. The video, which was produced in the United States, sparked protests against the American embassy in Cairo and led to the arrest of several Egyptians who had posted the video on blogs or Facebook, including Alber Saber, a Christian who was arrested in September and sentenced to six years in prison on charges of insulting Islam and President Morsi. He has denied charges that he posted the video on Facebook. Police were called to Saber’s home because a riot had formed outside accusing him of burning the Quran and insulting Islam, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Instead of assisting Saber’s family, they arrested him and hauled him to jail.

At the same time, President Morsi was speaking before the UN. He made a statement that perfectly encapsulated the challenge Egyptians face regarding free expression and the desire to incorporate Islamic teachings into civil law. “Egypt respects freedom of expression,” he said, but “not a freedom of expression that targets a specific religion or a specific culture.”

This certainly reflects the precariousness of ruling party politics today, says H.A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S Relations with the Islamic World.

Blasphemy cases aren’t necessarily set into motion by the government, he said in an email exchange with TAC. Certainly, as in several of the aforementioned cases, local clerics are often the first to point the finger. No fan of the Brotherhood himself, Hellyer nevertheless recognizes the new government’s tricky burden: “what may be the case, and as yet we do not entirely have the full picture on this, is that people felt emboldened to engage in these [blasphemy] cases because of the proliferation of religious identity politics in the country,” Hellyer said. “If the [Morsi] government wanted to push them down, they could, I suppose, but even if they wanted to, they might feel reticent to do so for other political reasons at present.”

Most Egyptians believe religion should be part of the political process in Egypt. Some 80 percent are Muslim, however. Most, according polls, look to Turkey as a model for a moderate Islamic democracy, but Turkey, too, has anti-blasphemy laws on the books, suggesting that it will be a challenge for non-Islamists in Egypt to eliminate anti-blasphemy from the penal code entirely. How the new constitution, if it does indeed include new “freedom of expression” measures, will square with the acceptance of anti-blasphemy laws among religious Egyptians, remains to be seen.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor.



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