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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”