Subscribe to Secularism is a Womens Issue

Secularism is a Women’s Issue

Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Egypt: To be an atheist today

Egypt: To be an atheist today

The post Alber Saber era

Saturday 15 April 2017, by siawi3


Egyptian student Sherif Gaber given prison sentence for atheist Facebook posts

Suez Canal University President personally filed legal case against student Sherif Gaber, who claims he was tortured in custody

Emir Nader

February 17, 2015

Egyptian student imprisoned for atheist Facebook posts.(AFP Photo)

A student from Ismailia was given a one year prison sentence by a court Monday for contempt of religion relating to activities on campus and atheist statements online.

Sherif Gaber, 22, was studying at Suez Canal University in 2013, when teaching staff and fellow students reported him via a petition to the institution’s President. They said he had made posts supporting atheism on Facebook, and suspected him of being behind a page called ‘The Atheists’.

Subsequently, the university’s then-president Mohamed A. Mohamedein personally filed a legal complaint against the student to the local prosecution on the grounds of contempt of religion. Monday’s verdict on the case allows Gaber to avoid the prison sentence on a bail of EGP 1,000. However, a retrial that could increase the sentence to over two years is due to take place in the coming weeks.

Speaking to Daily News Egypt, Gaber said how he was a “good student… top of his class†, but that his run-in with the university began after he challenged a science teacher. This arose over the teacher calling homosexuality a sin, and for homosexuals to “be crucified in the middle of the streets†.

According to Gaber, a lecturer from the university proceeded to print posts from
Gaber’s Facebook page that questioned religion. In front of a class, the lecturer declared that he would submit them as evidence to the University’s president and the prosecutor general.

Gaber said that nothing happened for a few months, and then on 27 October 2013 he was arrested from his home at 3am.

“[I couldn’t believe] the strength of the security of the state – three armoured cars and an army vehicle, surrounded my house,†Gaber said. “I said there must be another Osama bin Laden living in the same tower… I didn’t know I was that dangerous.â€

The student was kept in detention by National Security until December 2013, when he was granted an EGP 7,500 bail. Gaber told Daily News Egypt that during this time, he was subjected to severe abuse and electrocution from the security officials, who “punished every part of me†.

Gaber, who has separated from his family and now lives alone in an apartment, said that he is looking for help in claiming emergency asylum in the next few weeks to avoid imprisonment in the retrial of his case. He also believes that, whilst he has not been suspended from the university, he is repeatedly being failed by his teachers.

Former Suez Canal University President Mohamedein told Daily News Egypt that he “cannot remember the incident, a lot of things happened when I was there†. A spokesperson at the university was unavailable for comment.

“The state of freedom of expression in Egyptian universities is very bad,†Fatma Serag, a lawyer working with Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) who provided support to Gaber, told Daily News Egypt.

“Universities’ managements encourage students to report on their fellow students that have different political and ideological thoughts in order to take legal action against them and notify the national security agency and the police,†Serag continued. “This puts freedom of speech in a state of danger and puts restrictions on the academic freedom, especially for the teaching staff, muzzling their ability to teach and spread their thoughts†.

Serag said: “I strongly condemn the ruling issued against Sherif Gaber, and I hope his innocence is granted by appeal.â€

Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution, passed after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, states that “Islam is the religion of the State… the principles of Islamic Shari’a are the main source of legislation†. However, Article 64 maintains “freedom of religion is absolute†.

Despite not being explicitly illegal, the Egyptian government and judicial system has recently upheld the role of religion in the country by using a set of three penal codes. These include charges of “contempt of heavenly religions†, desecrating religious symbols and mocking religious rites in public, and which can carry sentences of up to five years.

In January, student Karim Al-Banna was given a three year prison sentence on charges of contempt of religion and insulting the divine. Al-Banna was accused of using his Facebook account to publish articles that “belittle the divine†, with his father supporting the case, collecting information to be used in the trial.

Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Human Rights Watch’s MENA programme, said following the case of Al-Banna: “Atheists are one of Egypt’s least-protected minorities, although the constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief and expression… [the] Egyptian authorities need to be guided by the constitution and stop persecuting people for atheism.â€

The rights watchdog said that the sentence, one of several handed down on blasphemy charges in recent years, and “is part of a wider government push to combat atheism and other forms of dissent†.



Egypt student Karim al-Banna gets 3-year jail term for atheism

11 January 2015

A picture shows Egypt’s High Court in downtown Cairo on January 1, 2015, during the hearing of three Al-Jazeera reporters on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood

An Egyptian court has sentenced a student to three years in jail for announcing on Facebook that he is an atheist and for insulting Islam, his lawyer said Sunday.

Karim al-Banna, a 21-year-old whose own father testified against him, was jailed by a court in the Nile Delta province of Baheira on Saturday, lawyer Ahmed Abdel Nabi told AFP.

“He was handed down a three-year prison sentence, and if he pays a bail of 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($ 140 or 117 euros) the sentence can be suspended until a verdict is issued by an appeals court,” Abdel Nabi said, adding that an appeal was to be heard on March 9.

Abdel Nabi said his client’s father had testified against his son, charging that he “was embracing extremist ideas against Islam”.

Banna’s name had appeared in a list of known atheists in a local daily after which his neighbours harassed him, said Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher on religion and beliefs at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

When Banna went to file a complaint against them at a police station, he was accused of insulting Islam and arrested, said Ibrahim, who has been tracking Banna’s case.

Banna has been in custody since November.

In December 2012, a 27-year-old blogger, Alber Saber, was sentenced to three years in jail on charges of blasphemy.

And last June, a Coptic Christian man was sentenced to six years in jail for insulting Islam.

The authorities have stepped up measures, including organising workshops, to counter atheism.

Egypt’s constitution outlaws insults against the three recognised monotheist religions — Islam, Christianity and Judaism.



Egypt court jails blogger Alber Saber for blasphemy

12 December 2012
From the section Middle East

Image caption Human rights groups have called for the release of Alber Saber (left)

A court in Egypt has sentenced a blogger to three years in prison for blasphemy and contempt of religion.

Alber Saber was arrested in September after neighbours accused him of posting links to a film mocking Islam that led to protests across the Muslim world.

Mr Saber, an atheist from a Coptic Christian family, can appeal against the ruling if he pays $167 (£100) bail.

The case raises concerns over freedom of expression just as Egyptians are set to vote on a draft constitution.

Liberals, secularists and the Coptic Church have complained that the document fails to protect basic rights, and that the constituent assembly which approved the charter last month was dominated by Islamists.

’Critical statements’

Mr Saber was initially accused of circulating links to a 14-minute trailer for the film, Innocence of Muslims, which denigrates the Prophet Muhammad.

But he denied promoting the video and later faced charges relating to other statements critical of Islam and Christianity which police investigators allegedly found online and on his computer at his home.

Human rights groups have called for Mr Saber’s release.

There has been a proliferation of prosecutions for blasphemy in Egypt in the nearly two years since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Many of those targeted are Copts, who make up about 10% of the population.

Although blasphemy has long been a criminal offence, Article 44 of the draft constitution contains a specific article prohibiting insulting prophets.

Human rights activists have warned that it is inherently contradictory to Articles 43 and 45, which guarantee freedom of belief and freedom of thought and opinion.

“Expect to see many more blasphemy prosecutions in the future now that it’s embedded as a crime in the constitution,” Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times.



The unbelievers: Post-Alber Saber, more atheists struggle to assert their identity

Sun, 28/10/2012 - 20:35

Jano Charbel
Sherif Zaazaa

Five male members of an atheist group congregate in one of Cairo’s crowded downtown bars, sipping beer and Pepsi as they discuss their thoughts on religion, sex, science, culture, politics and Egypt’s new ruling regime.

This group — centered on an atheist website — has been holding weekly meetings since Mohamed Morsy won the presidential election on 24 June. It consists of both former Muslims and former Christians.

Mohamed, the group’s founder, says the group holds weekly get-togethers “as a forum where we can openly speak our minds.†Like the other atheists quoted in this story, his full name has not been used for his own security.

Group members say they do not seek to proselytize for their beliefs. “We are not a church, nor a religion,†one says.

Discussing the ongoing trial of Egyptian atheist Alber Saber on charges of blasphemy, in light of his Facebook posts, the same participant comments that this trial “makes me worried, and has made me think twice before posting my thoughts on Facebook.â€

Discussing atheism or criticizing religion in Egypt has typically been done in closed circles like these.

Several Facebook groups about atheism have been “voluntarily†shut down over the past few weeks, and most atheists appear to be keeping a low profile since Saber’s arrest last month. On the other hand, other atheists have been coming out of the closet and expressing their beliefs — or disbelief — as openly as possible.

Coming out

The Internet has connected many non-believers together, introducing them to a virtual community that shares many of their outlooks.

The widespread taboo of “thou shall not question†was gradually weakened with the advent of forums, blogs, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and credible research online.

Before the pervasive expansion of social networks in the region, the most prominent blog among non-believers was the Network of Arab Atheists, created in March 2006, Shady, another non-believer, explains.

Though it has been hacked many times, the site acted as a portal for many atheists in Egypt and the region. However, anonymity remained the norm for most members.

Since then, the number of Arab atheist groups, blogs and forums has been dramatically increasing.

Most sites haven’t been set up to promote atheism, as Mohamed explains, but rather as forums for likeminded people to share their thoughts.

He says there’s been a massive increase in new members since the revolution. “The numbers went up dramatically, more than tenfold; it’s as if people were waiting for that space of freedom to express themselves openly.â€

Offline meetings are regularly organized through his group, although the locations are never publicly advertised.

What is possible or permissible — in terms of atheists’ freedom of expression — is determined not only by Egypt’s criminal law, but also by law enforcement officials and popular religious sentiment.

The ‘A’ word

In Egypt, atheists represent a small segment of the population that refuses to adhere to religious doctrines. This tendency has been more or less tolerated, as long as atheists keep their beliefs to themselves.

On the other hand, disseminating atheistic views can be viewed as blasphemy, denigration, defamation or contempt of religion — all crimes punishable by law.

Mob violence, as in the case of Saber, is also a threat that some atheists fear.

The state “does not recognize atheism, as a belief or religion, by law,†says Sherif Azer of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

Egyptians can’t put “atheist’ on their national ID cards in the space allocated for religion, Azer explains. They must choose from three religions: Islam, Christianity or Judaism.

One atheist, Ahmed, says atheism “is not a religion, it is the lack of religion. I do not want it written on my ID. I don’t want to have any beliefs written on anyone’s ID.â€

He explains that, given the conservative nature of society, most other Egyptian atheists would probably be unwilling to have “atheist†written on their ID cards, out of fear of discriminatory treatment or abuse at the hands of officials and employers.

According to the Penal Code, there are three articles criminalizing such affronts.

Article 98(e) stipulates that “the contempt of heavenly religions†by written, oral or any other means is punishable by six months to five years in prison, and/or fines of LE500 to LE1,000.

According to Article 160, the desecration of religious symbols is punishable by imprisonment of up to five years, and/or fines of LE100 to LE500.

Article 161 stipulates that mocking a religion or religious rite in public is a crime carrying the same penalties as Article 160.

Azer says the willingness to tolerate or criminalize atheism is still being tested under President Mohamed Morsy.

“The Morsy government isn’t clearly against or with these freedoms. We still have the same laws and same mentalities as before,†he says.

Persecute, mute, maybe execute?

While it might be tolerated to one extent or another, atheism is not welcome among religious societies in Egypt. Families can go as far as disowning their own relatives, friends might turn away, and, in more conservative communities, the reactions to atheism and/or atheists can be calamitous.

Neveen, at 27, is a graduate of biology school who lost her faith in religion years ago. Egypt Independent sat in on an informal discussion with her and several of her friends who share a similar understanding of the world.

Their stories of growing up in a country saturated with religious beliefs reveal intolerance to any mindset that deviates from the “God-sent†norms.

“Why are we hated for the way our minds are wired?†she exclaims despondently, sitting with a few friends who share her beliefs. “Why are we scorned, looked down upon and persecuted for our personal logic?â€

She recalls being grounded for questioning a verse in the Quran that conflicted with what she had learned in biology about the stages of fetal development. The incident propelled her yearning for knowledge and her choice of career.

Her friend Mohamed says he has been living a secret life, hiding his atheism from his parents since the age of 19, pretending to fast and pray when he’s called to.

“I put my head down and act the way they do. I know they’ll never understand,†he explains in a somber tone.

Conversely, Shady is a non-religious agnostic whose lack of participation in religious traditions like fasting and praying constantly raises the question of “Why?†— a question he refuses to answer for fear of prejudice.

A lack of Abrahamic belief is often associated with an absence of morals. “Many believe the stick-and- carrot dogma of religion is what creates human ethics,†Shady explains.

He then recalls how a Salafi coworker responded to a mention of atheists with “Killing them would not suffice.â€

Yet a few atheists also express haughty and judgmental outlooks on their religious counterparts.

For example, Mido says, “I personally see religious people as being mentally ill. I could still love them and befriend them, but I do feel superior to them, to be honest.â€

Should I stay or should I go?

Abdel Aziz, an atheist and advocate for freedom of thought, left Egypt for South Africa after failing to find any common ground with the culture he was raised in. Although his family had accepted his way of life, he couldn’t deal with a society that treated him like an outcast.

He recalls the day when he attempted to change the religion slot on his national ID from Muslim to vacant, which ended in a contentious, fruitless argument on both sides.

Ahmed has a different opinion regarding Egyptian mentalities toward atheists.

“I think [atheism] has already been spreading among the community, especially over the last decade,†Ahmed says.

He thinks that “more people will come to question the fundamentals of [religion].â€

As for Mido, who has more recently ‘come out’ of the atheist closet, he believes that the ideas are spreading.

“But I don’t see it taking over religion, especially not in Egypt ... perhaps in several hundred years,†he says.