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Egypt's Identity Crisis

Paul Marshall

When the newly nominated American ambassador to Cairo, Margaret Scobey, testified at her Senate confirmation hearing on February 6, she listed many current problems in Egypt and pledged to do work to advance civil and political liberties there. Apart from a reference to including religious leaders in “people-to-people exchanges,” however, she omitted the most difficult issue: the religious tensions currently gripping Egyptian life.

Her testimony took place in the wake of several important verdicts handed down by Egypt’s Court of Administrative Justice granting relief to specific religious minorities from requirements relating to their national identity cards. Given the country’s poor human rights record, these verdicts offer some welcome good news, and have provoked sweeping headlines.

As with so much else under the Mubarak regime, however, appearances are deceiving. First, since in practice the powerful executive branch makes the final decisions on controversial matters, it remains to be seen whether the verdicts will be executed. Meanwhile, the government’s stance during the controversy underscores the country’s increasing Islamization.

On January 29, the court ruled that Egypt’s Baha’is may leave the religion box on their identity cards blank and will no longer be forced to choose one of the officially permitted identities—Muslim, Christian, or Jew. On February 9, it ruled that 12 Christians who had previously converted to Islam may convert back and have their identity documents changed to reflect this.

This is no small matter. Without a valid identity card one cannot marry, enroll in school, get a job, open a bank account, or pass through any of the many police checkpoints. Hence, the judges should be commended, as should the plaintiffs, their lawyers, and the human rights activists who put themselves in danger by bringing these cases. Some received death threats.

But there are problems, major ones, with the verdicts. The court ruled that “reconverts” must have the word “ex-Muslim” on their IDs. This essentially marks them as apostates and exposes them to persecution and attack.

Furthermore, the court’s decisions are exceedingly narrow, as a third verdict shows. On the same day that it handed down its Baha’i decision, the court also ruled that Mohammed Hegazy, who was born a Muslim, could not have his conversion to Christianity recognized since “monotheistic religions were sent by God in chronological order” and therefore one cannot convert to “an older religion.”

Hegazy had converted in 1998. He had been tortured by the police for three days, and had been arrested on other occasions. On August 2, 2007, he brought a case challenging the government’s refusal to recognize his conversion. After receiving death threats, including from his own father, he went into hiding. His lawyer, Mamdouh Nakhla, withdrew after also receiving death threats. Radical Islamic clerics, including Youssef al-Badry, called for Hegazy’s death and filed charges against Nakhla of “inciting sectarian strife,” a criminal offense.

Other converts suffer worse fates. On November 22, 2007, police in Qena arrested Siham Ibrahim Muhammad Hassan al-Sharqawi, a Muslim convert to Christianity who had been in hiding since 2003. She was interrogated for four days and threatened with beatings. Since November 27, her whereabouts have been unknown.

Hegazy’s and al-Sharqawi’s situation differs from that of the 12 reconverts since the two were born Muslim. Their plight, however, and that of other converts who live in hiding or have fled into exile shows the dangers of trying to survive in Egypt as an “ex-Muslim.” Al-Badry has already said he will bring a civil case against the 12 since it is the state’s duty “to punish the apostates.”

Most worrisome, the administrative court’s authority and decisions are further weakened by the government’s increasing deference to sharia as interpreted by Al Azhar, the major Muslim educational center in Egypt, and the Sunni world generally.

For example, in April 2006, the Ministry of the Interior consulted Al Azhar’s Islamic Research Center, whose subsequent fatwa described the Baha’i faith as a “heresy” and referenced its own 1985 opinion that accused Baha’is of supporting Zionism and imperialism and labeled them “apostates.”

Then, in October 2006, a pro-government paper, Roz Al-Youssef, published excerpts from a government report arguing that, since the Baha’i faith was not a “divine religion,” its followers were not protected by constitutional guarantees of freedom of belief and religion. It recommended that Baha’is be “identified, confronted, and singled out so that they could be watched carefully, isolated and monitored in order to protect the rest of the population as well as Islam from their danger, influence, and teachings.” There is no indication that the government’s views have changed.

The government also consulted Al Azhar on reconversions back to Christianity, and the fatwa committee described them as “a grave crime that cannot be met with leniency.” On May 1, 2007, according to the newspaper Sout el Oma, Interior Minister Habib al-Adly sent a memo to the Administrative Court insisting that Islam, the state religion, demands that any Muslim man who abandons his faith should be killed, while a Muslim woman “apostate should be imprisoned and beaten every three days until she returns to Islam.”

The government’s stance reflects the regime’s push for, or acquiescence in, an increasingly Islamist state as it seeks to avoid being outflanked in its Islamic credentials by its main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is in the U.S. interest that Egypt end its religious identity politics. On Al Hurra television (U.S. broadcasting to the Middle East)—which to its credit ran an hour-long panel on the religion cases—Nakhla, the Christians’ lawyer, and Gamal al-Banna, the progressive Egyptian scholar and brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, both urged dropping the religion box altogether from identity cards since it “opened the door for discrimination.” America should press Egypt to do this.

Unless the United States, particularly the State Department, overcomes its continuing aversion to treating religion as an integral part of foreign policy, we may watch uncomprehendingly as Egypt, as well as other parts of the Middle East, slide further into radical Islam.

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