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.

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Brexit will hike energy prices - progressive campaigners should seize the opportunity

Winter is Coming. 

Friday 24th June 2016 was a beautiful day. Blue sky and highs of 22 degrees greeted Londoners as they awoke to the news that Britain had voted to leave the EU.  

Yet the sunny weather was at odds with the mood of the capital, which was largely in favour of Remain. And even more so with the prospect of an expensive, uncertain and potentially dirty energy future. 

For not only are prominent members of the Leave leadership well known climate sceptics - with Boris Johnson playing down human impact upon the weather, Nigel Farage admitting he doesn’t “have a clue” about global warming, and Owen Paterson advocating scrapping the Climate Change Act altogether - but Brexit looks set to harm more than just our plans to reduce emissions.

Far from delivering the Leave campaign’s promise of a cheaper and more secure energy supply, it is likely that the referendum’s outcome will cause bills to rise and investment in new infrastructure to delay -  regardless of whether or not we opt to stay within Europe’s internal energy market.

Here’s why: 

1. Rising cost of imports

With the UK importing around 50% of our gas supply, any fall in the value of sterling are likely to push up the wholesale price of fuel and drive up charges - offsetting Boris Johnson’s promise to remove VAT on energy bills.

2. Less funding for energy development

Pulling out of the EU will also require us to give up valuable funding. According to a Chatham House report, not only was the UK set to receive €1.9bn for climate change adaptation and risk prevention, but €1.6bn had also been earmarked to support the transition to a low carbon economy.

3.  Investment uncertainty & capital flight

EU countries currently account for over half of all foreign direct investment in UK energy infrastructure. And while the chairman of EDF energy, the French state giant that is building the planned nuclear plant at Hinkley Point, has said Brexit would have “no impact” on the project’s future, Angus Brendan MacNeil, chair of the energy and climate select committee, believes last week’s vote undermines all such certainty; “anything could happen”, he says.

4. Compromised security

According to a report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (the IEEP), an independent UK stands less chance of securing favourable bilateral deals with non-EU countries. A situation that carries particular weight with regard to Russia, from whom the UK receives 16% of its energy imports.

5. A divided energy supply

Brexiteers have argued that leaving the EU will strengthen our indigenous energy sources. And is a belief supported by some industry officials: “leaving the EU could ultimately signal a more prosperous future for the UK North Sea”, said Peter Searle of Airswift, the global energy workforce provider, last Friday.

However, not only is North Sea oil and gas already a mature energy arena, but the renewed prospect of Scottish independence could yet throw the above optimism into free fall, with Scotland expected to secure the lion’s share of UK offshore reserves. On top of this, the prospect for protecting the UK’s nascent renewable industry is also looking rocky. “Dreadful” was the word Natalie Bennett used to describe the Conservative’s current record on green policy, while a special government audit committee agreed that UK environment policy was likely to be better off within the EU than without.

The Brexiteer’s promise to deliver, in Andrea Leadsom’s words, the “freedom to keep bills down”, thus looks likely to inflict financial pain on those least able to pay. And consumers could start to feel the effects by the Autumn, when the cold weather closes in and the Conservatives, perhaps appropriately, plan to begin Brexit negotiations in earnest.

Those pressing for full withdrawal from EU ties and trade, may write off price hikes as short term pain for long term gain. While those wishing to protect our place within EU markets may seize on them, as they did during referendum campaign, as an argument to maintain the status quo. Conservative secretary of state for energy and climate change, Amber Rudd, has already warned that leaving the internal energy market could cause energy costs “to rocket by at least half a billion pounds a year”.

But progressive forces might be able to use arguments on energy to do even more than this - to set out the case for an approach to energy policy in which economics is not automatically set against ideals.

Technological innovation could help. HSBC has predicted that plans for additional interconnectors to the continent and Ireland could lower the wholesale market price for baseload electricity by as much as 7% - a physical example of just how linked our international interests are. 

Closer to home, projects that prioritise reducing emission through tackling energy poverty -  from energy efficiency schemes to campaigns for publicly owned energy companies - may provide a means of helping heal the some of the deeper divides that the referendum campaign has exposed.

If the failure of Remain shows anything, it’s that economic arguments alone will not always win the day and that a sense of justice – or injustice – is still equally powerful. Luckily, if played right, the debate over energy and the environment might yet be able to win on both.

 

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.