Committing Egypt to a five-year program of human rights reform, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did not mince words about religion.
“If someone tells me they are neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew or that he or she does not believe in religion, I will tell them, ‘You are free to choose,’” he said. “But will a society that has been conditioned to think in a certain way for the last 90 years accept this?”
The comment sent shockwaves through Egyptian society.
“Listening to him, I thought he was so brave,” said Samira Luka, senior director for dialogue at the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services. “Sisi is fighting not only a culture but a dogma.”
Last month, the government released its first-ever National Human Rights Strategy after studying the path of improvement in 30 other nations, including New Zealand, South Korea, and Finland. The head of the UN Human Rights Council praised the 100-page [in English] document as a “key tool” with “concrete steps.”
Egypt’s constitution guarantees freedom of belief and worship and gives international treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the force of law. But Article 98 of the Middle Eastern nation’s penal code stipulates up to five years in prison for blasphemy and has been used against atheists and Christians alike.
Will Sisi’s words signal a change?
Since his election in 2014, Egypt’s head of state has consistently spoken about the need to “renew religious discourse,” issuing a challenge to Muslim clerics. And prior to the launch of the new strategy, his comments even hinted at a broader application than atheism.
“We are all born Muslims and non-Muslims by [ID] card and inheritance,” Sisi stated. “Have you thought of … searching for the path until you reach the truth?”
Egypt’s ID card indicates the religion of each citizen. It can be changed to state Muslim in the case of conversion, but cannot be changed to Christian. Prominent public figures have called for removing the label, and debate ensued at the new strategy’s launch. Some argue the ID’s religion field is used by prejudiced civil servants and private businesses to discriminate against the minority religion.
Sisi’s time frame of “90 years” roughly corresponds to the 1928 founding of the Muslim Brotherhood. And Luka’s “dogma” indicates a widespread social acceptance of interpretations of Islam that privilege the religion’s place in law and culture.
According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims believe converting away from Islam should be punishable by death.
Calling for the application of sharia law, the Brotherhood won Egypt’s presidency in 2012, only to be overthrown by then defense minister Sisi the following year after massive popular demonstrations.
Since then, Egypt has declared the group to be a terrorist organization and has moved to eradicate their influence from public life. Thousands—including unaffiliated liberal activists—are in prison or self-imposed exile. Bahey el-din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), called Egypt’s human rights situation “catastrophic.”
Concerned, President Joe Biden withheld $130 million of $1.3 billion in yearly aid to Egypt last month, conditioning it on the release of human rights and civil society activists.
Three days earlier—on September 11—Sisi launched the new human rights strategy to a national television audience. In addition to his comments about religion, he declared 2022 to be the “year of civil society.”
But a new law passed this summer to regulate NGOs was largely panned by human rights advocates. And Hassan stated that the 9/11 timing indicated the document’s primary audience. So too did the fact that the drafting committee was headed by the foreign minister.
“Before it was circulated in Egypt,” he said, “the strategy was published on the webpage of the Egyptian embassy in DC.”
A week later, charges were dropped against four NGOs.
Egyptian Christians, however, are far less critical.
“This document is positive and important, and will impact the whole Egyptian mentality toward the ‘other,’” said Andrea Zaki, head of the Protestant Churches of Egypt. “The president, in his way of thinking, precedes all other political elites.”
Culminating a process that began in 2019, the human rights strategy included also the ministers of defense, interior, justice, and general intelligence, among others. This is meant to indicate political will; however, these departments also stand accused of human rights violations far more than others.
Setting a five-year deadline for implementation, the strategy is organized into four categories to encompass the whole of necessary improvements: civil and political rights; economic, social, and cultural rights; women, children, disabled, and elderly rights; and overall human rights education and capacity building.
Coptic Orphans appreciated the broad focus—especially on development.
“For over 30 years we have been in almost all of Egypt’s communities promoting better education, and through our Valuable Girl Program we break down barriers between Coptic and Muslim communities to ensure mutual social responsibility,” said executive director Nermien Riad.
“We believe this to be the key to ensuring Copts thrive in Egypt.”
Coptic Solidarity—from the Egyptian diaspora—interpreted it differently.
“It is pure PR and propaganda,” said Lindsay Griffin, director of development and advocacy. “Human rights, in the traditional sense, are diluted and made marginal. And abuses, therefore, are considered secondary amidst other socioeconomic issues.”
Copts are resigned to Sisi as a “lesser evil” than the Brotherhood, Griffin said, comparing Egypt to Jim Crow–era America. Worse, the human rights provisions of the constitution are not only ignored but also subjugated. Article 2 enshrines Islam as the religion of the state and the principles of sharia law as the basis of legislation.
The contradictions become apparent especially when Copts are attacked by the “fanatic populace.” Rather than prosecuting offenders, the state conducts reconciliation meetings and pressures Christian victims to drop charges.
“It is a completely interconnected and mutually reinforcing system of discrimination by the government and society,” she said. “The culture of impunity only encourages more persecution.”
But beyond the religion file, Griffin joined the secular CIHRS in lamenting outright political human rights violations. These include extended pretrial detention and charging peaceful researchers with terrorist designations—which unjustly affects Coptic activists also.
Three days after the strategy release, Patrick Zaki was finally brought to court after 19 months in detention. Rami Kamel is still awaiting due process, 23 months later. Both were involved in chronicling violations against the Coptic community.
Repeated throughout the document was a recognition of “incorrect cultural legacies.” Michelle Dunne, director of the Middle East program for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, found this shift of blame to be “ludicrous.” While education is needed, she saw an overall “basis of denial.”
Be patient, suggested Luka, who served on the strategy review committee.
“You can’t change everything in one step,” she said. “But with a specific timeline, we can measure to see if it is implemented, or if it is just words on paper.”
Each of the four categories are organized along three tracks: legislative, institutional, and educational development. Of the former, the strategy recognizes a need for the law to provide guarantees for a lawyer if the defendant cannot afford one. The accused are not yet obliged to be told they have the right to remain silent. And furthermore, there is insufficient legal protection for witnesses and whistleblowers.
Each section also describes recent reforms and efforts undertaken by the state, identifying a “weak legal awareness … of practices which constitute cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.” In 2021, there have been 127 lectures on human rights within the ministry of interior, which oversees the police.
Furthermore, 44 citizenship committees have been established at the village level—often the locus of sectarian tension. These committees emphasize the equal rights of Muslims and Christians, while promoting the virtue of religious diversity.
The freedom of religion section emphasizes 15 “strengths and opportunities,” the largest number within the civil and political rights section. These include the establishment of a cabinet-level Supreme Committee for Combatting Sectarian Incidents; the removal of anti-tolerance material from the educational curriculum; and the spending of $70 million to restore Jewish synagogues and Coptic shrines along the Holy Family route commemorating Jesus’ infant sojourn in Egypt.
However, while the strategy is specific on legal issues, it does not detail religious issues. There is no mention of ID cards, conversion, reconciliation committees, or a unique personal status law for Christians—thought this summer to be “imminent”—in order to let the minority regulate marriage, divorce, and inheritance according to their faith.
Luka stated that a national strategy should not highlight the concerns of specific groups. But because of Sisi’s remarks, such issues are now embedded in public debate. She expects them to change gradually, with time and consensus.
As for Rami Kamel, she says, “It might help speed his trial.”
Luka does not have specific information about his case but questioned the assumption of innocence many critical human rights advocates afford the accused. Not everything is presented to the public, she said, to decide “if” there are government abuses.
But clearly there are challenges in Egypt, and the constitution must be implemented. It requires both culture change and economic development—and for the first time, Egypt has committed itself before the world.
“This document is so significant,” Luka said. “Listen carefully to what President Sisi said during the launch. We are so proud.”