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Egypt: Why blasphemy cases are rising under President Sisi

Understanding motivations

Egypt's ex-military president, who unseated the Muslim Brotherhood, is criticized for curbing rights and freedoms. But criminalizing blasphemy is popular.

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    Egyptian Sufi Muslims practice ritualized Zikr (invocation) as they celebrate Moulid Al-Hussein, the birthday of Prophet Mohammad's grandson Hussein, in Cairo on Feb. 10. Prosecutions for contempt of religion have increased dramatically in Egypt since the 2011 uprising.
    Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
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In a shaky, brief video shot in dim light, a boy kneels, raising his hands as if in supplication, and imitates a prayer. Another ambles over and pantomimes slicing his throat. The boys giggle and a voice off camera scolds them.

The video, made by five Egyptian teenagers goofing off in their hotel room while on a field trip, is a reenactment of sorts of the beheading of 20 Egyptian Christians by the Islamic State in Libya in February 2015.

The boys’ parents, Christians from the village of Al Nasriya in Minya governorate, say the video shows harmless teenage antics at a time when local Christians were reeling from the slaughter of their brethren, many from Minya.

But four of the boys in the video are now on trial for contempt of religion, with the verdict in their case and sentencing due next week. The teacher who filmed it, in addition to losing his job and being forced out of the village, was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison.

Their case is just one in a surge of blasphemy cases in Egypt over the last year that has opened another front in a wide-ranging crackdown on rights and freedoms under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. But some say it is also, paradoxically, part of an effort by the Sisi regime to cast itself as a guardian of religion even as it is criticized for torture and repression.

Fatma Serag, head of the legal unit at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, says the state “is trying to use blasphemy cases to win support of the public. To say ‘we’re not oppressing, we’re guarding religion.”

Blasphemy cases increased

Prosecutions for contempt of religion, common under former President Hosni Mubarak, increased dramatically after the 2011 uprising that deposed him, with many observers saying it was correlated to the rise to power of the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But in 2015 under Mr. Sisi, the former general who unseated the Islamists and is overseeing an unprecedented crackdown on the Brotherhood, authorities prosecuted or investigated at least 20 contempt of religion cases, says Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher on religious freedom at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. That’s more than at any time under Mr. Mubarak or since.

Religious minorities, particularly Christians, Shiites, and atheists, are often targeted. But recently prominent Sunni Muslim public figures who have voiced criticism or questions of prevailing religious doctrine have also been convicted of insulting religion.

Ms. Serag says support for the criminalization of blasphemy is widespread.

“Anyone who talks about religion in a way that’s different or strange, people call the police on them,” she says. “This is the bigger problem. We’re not just facing the regime and how it views this, but also the way the community views it, and they largely are against freedom of expression with regards to religion, or criticism of their own religion.”

Egypt’s constitution declares that freedom of belief is “absolute,” and guarantees the right to practice religious rituals, but only to adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. The penal code, however, criminalizes contempt of religion, a vague phrase used to prosecute a variety of actions and expressions.

Rumors about video

The case of the four Christian students began last April, when a student at their school saw or heard about the video and reported it to a teacher, says the students’ lawyer, Maher Najib. The teacher went to police, and soon the issue had exploded – rumors circulated that the video showed the boys ripping the veil off a Muslim woman or denigrating the Quran. Mobs attacked Christian homes in the village, and police arrested the boys and their teacher.

All the boys – 15 and 16 years old at the time – were held in adult jails and denied family visits. Now out on bail, they’re terrified of a possible guilty verdict and sentence of up to five years. In an interview in Mr. Najib’s office in Beni Mazar, the boys’ parents said the students had stopped attending school and were studying from home to avoid problems.

Amjad Hana, a farmer and the father of Bassem, 16, says his son is “traumatized, he feels hated by everyone,” and that all the boys are “petrified.”

“This verdict could destroy them,” he says. “They’ve tried prison once. They can’t do it again.”

At the last court hearing, Najib says he requested that the judges view the video, because the transcript submitted by the prosecution left out the ending of the clip, which made clear the children were mocking the Islamic State, not Islam. But the judges refused – even turning their heads away when he tried to show them the video on his phone, he says – and abruptly declared the verdict would be issued at the next hearing.

As in many blasphemy cases, community uproar played a strong role in the case. “If anyone claims you insulted religion, you will be in a serious condition. If you’re not put in jail, you will be facing a lot of community pressure, and community pressure plays a very big part in sending these people to jail,” says Mina Thabet, program manager for minorities and vulnerable groups at the Egyptian Commission of Rights and Freedoms. Often, he says, National Security agents pressure judges to convict those accused of contempt of religion to satisfy an angry public.

Regime supporters also prosecuted

But while such cases in general are on the rise, public figures, even those supportive of the regime, are also now being convicted, says Mr. Ibrahim, the researcher on religious freedom. “In the past public figures could have a trial and defend themselves,” he says. “Now I can’t say the same thing.”

Last year a court sentenced television host Islam El Behery to five years in prison – later reduced to one year on appeal – for contempt of religion after he questioned orthodox Islamic beliefs on his show. He was convicted just months after Sisi delivered a speech in January 2015 calling for a “religious revolution,” saying religious leaders should help fight extremism by confronting “misleading ideologies harming Islam and Muslims worldwide.” But a renewal of religious discourse is exactly what Mr. Behery says he was trying to promote when he was accused of blasphemy.

In January, prominent poet Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison for contempt of religion over a Facebook post in which she criticized the slaughter of animals during a Muslim holiday.

“How can the president say we try to renew religious speech, to be more open to other opinions?” asks Ibrahim. “In fact this is not true,” he says. “The state is becoming more conservative.”

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