Egypt Still Islamic: Christians and Atheists under Blasphemy Threat

Despite Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s insistence that Islam must undergo a “revolution” and resist extremism, his government continues to prosecute blasphemy cases at roughly the same rates as his predecessors.

Recent reports have noted that prosecutions have especially increased in the last half-year against atheists, who often face accusations of apostasy from Islam or of associated moral offenses. Just weeks before Sisi gave his January 2015 speech on the political role of Islam, a government-endorsed religious organization announced that there were exactly 866 atheists in Egypt, a claim that many actual unbelievers dismissed as unimaginably specific and far too low. (RELATED: Atheism On The Rise In The Arab World)

Egypt’s constitution recognizes Islam as the state religion. But Sisi has made a point of distancing himself from unstable and potentially violent Muslims, echoing the country’s pre-revolutionary authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak. And just like presidents who preceded the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Sisi has sidelined the Muslim Brotherhood and other unfavorable groups by trying to beat them at their own game.

Foreign Policy this week quoted Ishak Ibrahim, an Egyptian researcher who noted that while cases against blasphemy declined briefly after Sisi’s summer 2014 ouster of Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Morsi, “by the second half of 2014 they were at the same level as before.” (RELATED: Egypt Sentences Deposed President Morsi To 20 Years)

Meanwhile, rumors in rural Egypt that a Christian insulted Islam or Muhammad often turn into lawsuits. These cases have also held steady, and sometimes accumulated additional charges against the defendant. Demiana Abdel-Nour, a Christian schoolteacher who fled Egypt after paying a fine during Morsi’s rule, saw her verdict under Sisi increase to a jail sentence. The allegation was that she defamed Islam during a lesson, a charge that her own students denied.

Other Egyptian Christians, atheists and Shiite Muslims have been ostracized from public life for actions as simple as making a post on Facebook about their beliefs. Ibrahim, the human rights researcher, described in an article Thursday how an elderly Shiite, Mahmoud Dahroug, is confined to his home lest he be arrested for the crime of belonging to his sect, which earned him a 5-year prison sentence.

In another case, Christian Michael Mounir Beshay remains in government custody for sharing a video online — not about Christianity, but showing a Muslim cleric discussing an unusual aspect of Islam.(RELATED: Egypt And US Christians Declare ISIS Victims ‘Martyrs’)

President Sisi has much to gain from claiming Islamic legitimacy, and from attempts to protect a Christian population that faces grave persecution elsewhere in the region. After twenty-one Egyptian Christians were beheaded on camera in neighboring Libya by Islamic State militants, he vowed to “punish these murderers.” But his government’s continuing record of excess against unconventional believers means that his credibility still has a way to go.

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