Egypt: How al Sisi uses the Islamic weapon of “blasphemy” to threaten freedom of speech
Azzurra Meringolo 6 June 2016

In the incriminating post the poet had described the ceremonial killing of rams, traditionally taking place during the Muslim festivity of Id al-Adha, as “the most horrible massacre committed by human beings”.  For this reason, in January she was sentenced to three years in prison. Unfortunately her appeal, presented while still on bail, was not successful and at the end of March an Egyptian court confirmed the sentence for “insulting religion”.

This episode, one of many, proves the progressive reappraisal of freedom of speech in Egypt following the revolution that deposed Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime five years ago.

Naoot is, in reality, a part of that growing number of Egyptian citizens who are in prison, on trial, or have lost their jobs for having publicly expressed their opinions. Furthermore, in her case, denying freedom of speech is not the only element that causes concern; there is more. Naoot has been one of the victims of the problematic blasphemy law that the Egyptian government is incessantly applying in an increasingly aggressive manner.

In spite of the long secular history of the Egyptian army that is currently  governing the country, data shows how there have been more religiously motivated incarcerations during President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s current mandate, than under the Islamic government deposed by the former general two years ago.

Since the 2011 revolution, there has effectively been an unexpected rise in blasphemy cases, a tendency that is continuing under al-Sisi’s government in spite of his self-portrayal as a protector of religious minorities in Egypt, after deposing former president Morsi.

Allegations of blasphemy usually refer to Article 98 (comma F) of the Egyptian Penal Code, which forbids “insulting or denigrating heavenly religions” (Islam, Christianity and Judaism). In practice, however, accusations are made in a disproportionate manner precisely against members of religious minorities, almost always charged with having insulted Islam.

According to the Tahrir Institute for the Middle East Policies (TIMEP), of the 36 accusations of blasphemy that ended up in court between 2011 and 2012, 35 involved insulting Islam, and only one case, later rejected, involved blasphemy against Christianity. Furthermore, almost  41% of cases of blasphemy were against Christians, although they represent about 10% of all Egyptians. In addition to this, these allegations were often based on doubtful evidence, as happened for the case involving a post on Facebook.

The newspapers are filled with absurd stories, such as one about three Christian boys from Alexandria, accused of having “publicly insulted Islam” by distributing, after sunset during the month of Ramadan, dates bearing verses of the Bible on the packaging. Last February, four other adolescent Coptic Christians were sentenced to five years in prison for having filmed a video in which they recited verses of the Koran while one raised a hand to his throat, miming a beheading. The judge ordered their imprisonment for having insulted Islam in spite of the boys justifying what they had done, saying that the video was meant to be a parody of Islamic State’s violence.

The state is not the only one responsible for these trials and incarcerations. The important Sunni university and mosque al-Azhar is also playing a role with its scholars appearing to want to guarantee and protect this controversial law. In May 2015, for example, the TV host Islam al-Behairy was sentenced for blasphemy following protests expressed by al-Azhar authorities who complained that his programme “instilled doubts in its viewers about what is instead certain in religion”. After about a year of court cases and appeals, in February 2016 Behairy was sentenced to a year in prison.

Moreover, members of al-Azhar and of other branches of the state’s religious establishment have repeatedly made statements concerning the dangers faced by real Islam due to the spread of ideologies such as atheism and Shia Islam. All this has taken place in spite of the Member of Parliament Mona Mounir presenting a draft law to change Article 98 (F) of the Penal Code and parliament’s spokesman Ali Abdel Aal having asked al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Affairs to review the law, encouraging a renewal of the religious discourse.

Although many observers and investigations have confirmed a rise in reports of blasphemy in the period following the revolution and during the Morsi government, this tendency has increased in a worrying manner under al-Sisi, in spite of him stating that he defends religious minorities in Egypt. Data seems to contradict him and the number of cases reported so far during his mandate is higher than those reported under Morsi.

It is becoming increasingly clearer how the use of charges and accusations is used in realty as a powerful instrument to regain and maintain control over the population. All this appears to confirm what was said in May 2014 by Robert Springborg, one of the most important scholars of contemporary Egypt. “Al Sisi will draw far more heavily upon Islam to legitimate his autocratic regime than he has led Egyptian and foreign observers to believe,” wrote Springborg in his article entitled ‘Sisi’s Secret Islamism’ published by Foreign Affairs.

Seen from this perspective, the speech on the “religious revolution” made by al-Sisi on December 28th, 2014 at Al-Azhar, thanks to which he was compared to Martin Luther, was only a public statement and evidence of a strategy aimed at consolidating his regime, of which religion is only an element, albeit a very important one.

Written in cooperation with Silia Galli
Translated by Francesca Simmons