Coptic lawyer Huda Nasrallah may have won a great victory for Christian women in Egypt. Last week, a Cairo court ruled in her favor, dividing the family inheritance equally between her and her two brothers.
But a few days earlier, Coptic activist Rami Kamel may have suffered a great setback for all Egyptian believers. He was arrested for his reporting of sectarian tension, and accused of joining a terrorist group.
How should these events be interpreted?
Nasrallah’s verdict followed the decision of two other courts to reject her appeal on the basis of the sharia law stipulation that a male heir receive two-thirds of the inheritance.
This past summer, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) took up her cause. In a campaign called “Christian on ID card, Muslim in Inheritance,” it claimed millions of Coptic women suffer similarly.
“It is not really about inheritance; my father did not leave us millions of Egyptian pounds,” she said. “If I didn’t take it to court, who would?”
Many have. A similar verdict was issued in 2016, but it did not succeed in establishing a precedent. Girgis Bebawy, a Coptic lawyer, has failed dozens of times, though according to the AP one of his current cases is due to be argued before the Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest.
Might Nasrallah’s novel approach make a difference now?
Rather than appealing to civil, secular equality, Nasrallah based her case on religion. Egypt’s 1938 Coptic Orthodox personal status regulations state that inheritance should be divided equally among children, regardless of gender.
Previous court rulings ignored this law, as well as Article 3 of the Egyptian constitution which states that the “sharia” of Christians and Jews is the primary source in determining issues concerning their personal status.
Copts represent roughly 10 percent of the Egyptian population of over 90 million. Only a handful of Jews remain.
That Nasrallah and her brothers agreed to divide their inheritance equally may have the difference with this final judge. EIPR researcher Ishak Ibrahim told the BBC that Islamic sharia only applies in the case of family dispute.
“[Nasrallah’s] case is important and yet only time will tell what the scope of its importance is,” said Samuel Tadros, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. “It all depends on the judge’s reasoning.”
If the ruling—which has yet to be released—stems from the family’s agreement, the impact will be minimal, he said. If from the appeal to Christian law, it could be felt far and wide on many personal status issues, such as adoption.
Islamic sharia forbids the formal adoption of children; this applies also to Christian orphans and willing Christian families.
Mina Thabet, head of the policy unit for the Egypt Commission for Rights and Freedoms, agrees that Nasrallah’s victory is a small step. Many more are needed until Christians in Egypt are dealt with as citizens, rather than a religious minority subject to Muslim rules.
Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based central religious institution in the Sunni Muslim world, has previously criticized Tunisia’s secular effort to enforce equality of inheritance among Muslims. But since Nasrallah’s verdict affects Christians, Thabet thinks it will not reverberate deeply.
“This case wasn’t dangerous,” he said. “Confronting the government is different.”
And that is where Kamel fell into trouble. A founding member of the Maspero Youth Union when Egypt’s military tanks rolled over Coptic protesters in 2011, he later documented sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians.
He is now facing charges of joining a terror group and spreading false information, his lawyer told Agence France-Presse. Additional charges include harming public peace, inciting strife between Muslims and Christians, and agitating against the state.
“There is no credible evidence to support these charges,” said Thabet, who last spoke with Kamel a few days before his arrest. Around 10 days prior, security called Kamel in for informal interrogations as a warning to stop his activity.
But Kamel continued, speaking out against the recent arrest of Khalil Rizk, a Coptic labor rights activist charged with joining a terrorist group.
Shortly thereafter, Kamel was arrested also. According to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, he was scheduled to participate in a UN forum on minority issues a few days later.
Kamel will be tried in the same case as Rizk, and could become the second Copt convicted of terrorism charges. Andrew Nassef was given a five-year sentence in 2017.
Human Rights Watch stated in a 2018 report that “tens of thousands” of peaceful dissidents have been imprisoned.
Egypt has consistently rejected such accusations, calling the reports unprofessional for relying on anonymous sources connected to the Muslim Brotherhood.
But increasingly, opposition and non-Islamist figures have also been targeted.
“These ‘black hole’ cases are used to put activists in pre-trial detention,” Thabet said. “It doesn’t matter if the charges are reasonable, they are used to punish those critical of state policies.”
Three years ago, Thabet was arrested on similar charges, and spent three months in jail. Amnesty International issued a 60-page report last week describing the expansion of terrorism charges to affect peaceful protesters, government critics, and journalists.
Kamel’s arrest coincided with a raid on the offices of Mada Masr, one of Egypt’s few remaining independent news sites. Its journalists were later released, following diplomatic and international outcry, including US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
His initial pretrial detention is fifteen days. It is often extended.
“The regime doesn’t want anyone pointing out the discrimination and persecution Copts face,” said Tadros, “because that destroys its propaganda campaign in the United States that depends on the narrative of [President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, the protector of Christians.”
Tadros said both cases have to do with religious identity.
“The offer is simple: dhimmitude,” he said, referring to the pre-modern treatment of Christians in Muslim lands who had to accept second-class status in exchange for communal protection.
Today, a similar attitude governs personal status issues and precludes any push for equality, said Tadros.
Thabet views Kamel’s arrest as related to his activism, not his religion—though of course they are indirectly related.
“The timing of the cases is just a coincidence,” he said. “In Egypt, there are many things that just don’t make sense.”