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Religious freedom at stake in Egypt

If you don’t fast during Ramadan in Egypt, lie about it and hide it. If not, you might land in jail.

Tarek Elshabini, a 21-year-old engineering student, is Muslim, but only according to his personal ID card. Every year when Ramadan comes, he faces a dilemma: he doesn't fast because he's an atheist, but everyone, including police officers, expects him to fast because he was born into a Muslim family.

In order to avoid any possible clashes between Elshabini and his family due to his non-religious credo, he decided to move away for a while until his relatives are able to live with the new reality. Most families in what Gallup has called the most religious country on earth would find it too bitter to swallow the fact that a son of theirs does not believe in the existence of God.

Elshabini managed to make his getaway by finding a job in Hurghada as a bar tender at a nightclub, and on his second day in the Red Sea tourist city, he had to go to the police station to verify his criminal record, as required by his new employer. After a few hours of struggling with government bureaucracy, Elshabini managed to get a copy of his clean record sheet and was out of the police station at noon.

To kill his thirst, he stopped at the kiosk across from the police station to buy a drink. He stood there, bought a can of soda and lit a cigarette. He had no idea that last Ramadan at least 150 people were arrested in Aswan and Hurghada, where he had just arrived, for eating, drinking or/and smoking in broad daylight during Ramadan. It was the first time this had happened in Egypt.

It wasn't the last time, though. This year, two micro-bus drivers were arrested in Cairo for the same reason. A Ramadan crackdown was also carried out by police officers in Hurghada to arrest anyone caught eating, smoking or drinking in public before sunset.

As Elshabini was smoking his cigarette and downing his soft drink, a plain-clothes officer came up to him and asked what his name was. He then invited him back into the police station. "At this point, I thought I might have forgotten something inside while getting my papers, and this very nice man was going to help me get it," Elshabini recalls.

Who is responsible?

The officer knew from his middle name, Ahmed, that Elshabini was "Muslim".

In Egypt, personal ID cards state the citizen's religion. The government of Egypt recognises only the three Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. As such, atheists such as Elshabini have to state one of these religions in their ID card.

The officer then told him he was under arrest on a charge of "public breaking of the fast", and locked him in the cells. For three hours no one would talk to him or tell him what was going on, until the officer who had arrested him came back.

"I kept telling him I was sorry, and that I forgot that it was Ramadan and that I was fasting . . . anything just to get myself out of this," says Elshabini.

Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher, explains that there is no such crime as "public breaking of the fast" and that it violates both Egyptian and international law. "The arrest of people for smoking in public during Ramadan is illegal under both Egyptian and international law. These arrests are arbitrary in the absence of any legal provisions under Egyptian law," she says.

After three hours of begging, Elshabini was finally released. "I'll believe you this time, and I'll let you out with no police report. How's that for a favour?" he says the officer told him.

Morayef also believes that the arrests seem to the product of initiatives by individual police stations, rather than a top-down policy pursued by the ministry of the interior. However, she argues that this does not absolve the government of responsibility for such illegal arrests.

"The government must clearly issue instructions that its security officers do not have the right to arrest people who appear not to be fasting," she says.

"Ramadan is the time of year that I would very much like to disappear from the face of the earth," says Elshabini. "Everybody is badly infected with this mass religious hysteria, and people start to interfere in other people's business."

Freedom is in danger

Elshabini's story shows how Egypt's relatively secular police are becoming increasingly intolerant when it comes to freedom of religion. It also demonstrates the government's failure to acknowledge that there are people who might not believe in Islam, or Christianity, or Judaism.

Nor does Egyptian law address this issue fully. Until last year, members of the Baha'i faith had to write "Muslim" on their ID cards because the law does not recognise Baha'ism as a religion. Last year, the courts allowed them to choose to leave the religion field blank.

The arrests also show that freedom of religion and belief is in danger in Egypt, which has long been known for its relative religious tolerance, especially in contrast to the theocratic regimes elsewhere in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf countries, Sudan and Iran. But it seems that, for the second year in a row, this ise changing, at least on an unofficial level.

"After three of the most humiliating hours in my life, I couldn't believe what was happening. At some point I thought this was a TV show or something -- that this was a trick. But unfortunately every part of what happened was real," Elshabini says.

However, many Egyptians are against the crackdown. A Facebook group called "Egyptians from all beliefs are against the arresting of non-fasters in Ramadan" attracted about 800 members in just a few days.

"Respect expected by people who fast should be based on personal choice," says Hany Freedom, the creator of the online group, choosing to go by his Facebook name. "Otherwise, how would the faster know if others are considerate out of conviction or only because they are forced to?"

Osama Diab is a freelance journalist based in Egypt.

Tags:Ramadan