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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter May 6, 2016

Statism, Tolerance and Religious Freedom in Egypt

Barbara Ann Rieffer-Flanagan EMAIL logo


While much optimism about the future was expressed at the time of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, little progress has been made on human rights including the protection of the fundamental right of freedom of religion and belief. In fact some argued that the situation in Egypt is worse today. This paper examines why many individuals (Copts, Atheists, Shiites, etc…) are unable to freely express their beliefs or practice their religion in Egypt. Some have argued that the denial of freedom of religion and belief is due to statism. But analysis of freedom of religion and belief that focus only on statism capture one aspect of the denial of this human right in Egypt. They neglect the intolerance in society that allows non-state actors to contribute to the difficult environment of FoRB in Egypt. This essay attempts to explore both the role that statism plays concerning the denial of FoRB, as well as how social hostilities contribute to an intolerant climate. This has important policy implications for future progress on this issue. Without more attention to attitudes and dispositions, Egypt will only make limited progress in the future.


While much optimism about the future was expressed at the time of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, little progress has been made on human rights including the protection of the fundamental right of freedom of religion and belief. In fact some argued that the situation in Egypt is worse today (Posner 2014). [1] Although this human right has been established in various documents (Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, etc.) and contributes to stability in society, it has been violated by various political leaders.

The consequences of violating this human right are quite significant. Not only does it violate the fundamental dignity of the person, previous research indicates that the denial of freedom of religion and belief (FoRB) often leads to violence and civil unrest. When governments prevent believers from praying, or building places of worship or restrict religious education, they are more likely to confront violence, religiously motivated terrorism and even civil wars (Grim and Finke 2012; Toft, Philpott, and Shah 2011).

Given the country’s political and cultural influence throughout the Arab world (the largest Arab population and the one that is home to Al Azhar) it is important to study Egypt’s policies and problems concerning FoRB. Furthermore, given the importance of FoRB to stability in society and individual well-being, understanding whether this right is protected is essential to understanding one potential source of volatility and conflict in Egypt’s future.

This paper examines why many individuals (Copts, Atheists, Shiites, etc.) are unable to freely express their beliefs or practice their religion in Egypt. Some (Wahid Hanna 2015) have discussed the lack of FoRB in Egypt in connection with authoritarian rulers whose statist policies have prevented this right from being upheld in society. Others have argued that the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power between 2011 and 2013 and their policies Islamizing Egypt’s political system were to blame for the absence of freedom of religion and belief in Egypt:

We concluded from these meetings and our own observations that, not withstanding the serious human rights problems of the Mubarak era, there were scant grounds for optimism in the Morsi era. Among those with whom we spoke, their most common concerns focused on increasing religious radicalization that negatively impacted women and religious minorities; troubling provisions in the new constitution limiting religious freedom and other rights; and frustrations about the continued climate of impunity since the start of the revolution for numerous acts of violence including against Copts

(Jasser 2013).

Other scholars have argued that secular authoritarians such as Nasser and Mubarak, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood have applied statism in a manner that undermined the protection of this right (Scott 2014).

But analysis of freedom of religion and belief that focus only on statism captures one aspect of the denial of this human right in Egypt. They neglect the intolerance in society that allows non-state actors to contribute to the difficult environment of FoRB in Egypt. This essay attempts to explore both the role that statism plays concerning the denial of FoRB, as well as how social hostilities contribute to an intolerant climate. This has important policy implications for future progress on this issue. Without more attention to attitudes and dispositions, Egypt will only make limited progress in protecting this right even if President el Sisi and other government officials had an epiphany and became genuine guardians of FoRB tomorrow.

The International Human Right of Freedom of Religion and Belief

This right has been established in various international legal documents including the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which over 160 states have ratified, as well as the UN General Assembly’s Resolution 36/55: Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights articulates this human right as:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.

  3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee explained that Article 18 should have a broad and expansive understanding:
  1. The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (which includes the freedom to hold beliefs) in article 18.1 is far-reaching and profound; it encompasses freedom of thought on all matters, personal conviction and the commitment to religion or belief, whether manifested individually or in community with others. The Committee draws the attention of States parties to the fact that the freedom of thought and the freedom of conscience are protected equally with the freedom of religion and belief. The fundamental character of these freedoms is also reflected in the fact that this provision cannot be derogated from, even in time of public emergency...

  2. Article 18 protects theistic, non-theistic and atheistic beliefs, as well as the right not to profess any religion or belief. The terms “belief” and “religion” are to be broadly construed. Article 18 is not limited in its application to traditional religions or to religions and beliefs with institutional characteristics or practices analogous to those of traditional religions. The Committee therefore views with concern any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility on the part of a predominant religious community.

Thus the norm of freedom of religion and belief has been established and codified by states in every region of the world, even if it is not upheld in practice.

Beyond being an essential right in international law, the freedom to believe and manifest that belief is one of the basic rights necessary for a life with dignity. One reason why freedom of religion and belief is essential to individual well-being is due to its connection with other human rights. When an individual’s right to freedom of belief is violated, it is often the case that a number of other basic rights, including the right to be free from discrimination, freedom of movement, expression, association and assembly are also violated. Novak, in support of the essential nature of freedom of religion and belief, has argued that religion provides the foundation for human rights, and “makes intelligible the conception of human rights” (Novak 2006).

Other scholars have argued that freedom of religion does not need to be a separate, enumerated right. If a state has a number of other basic rights and freedoms (freedom of belief, thought, expression, assembly, association, movement, privacy, and the ability to form a life plan) then individuals already have what constitutes freedom of religion and what is necessary for religious freedom. Nickel thinks it is advantageous to ground religious freedom in other more general rights and freedoms: “Religious liberty is more secure when nonreligious people see it, not as a special concession to the orthodox, but rather as simply an application of liberties and rights that all enjoy” (Nickels 2005). Unfortunately regardless of whether one argues that freedom of religion is essential to other freedoms or can be protected through a cluster of human rights, the violation of this right occurs all too often in Egypt.

Freedom of Religion and Belief in Egypt

The protection of FoRB has consistently fallen short of international standards according to numerous reports (European Parliament Intergroup on FoRB and RT 2015; USCIRF 2015). As one NGO activist noted, “Egypt has been going in the wrong direction for a long time.” [2] Another study of religious freedom noted that Egypt had a high “state of persecution or discrimination facing faith groups” and between October 2012 and June 2014 the situation in Egypt deteriorated (Aid to the Church in Need, 2014). The Pew Research Center captured just how extensive the religious restrictions in Egypt were in their global analysis which ranked countries on a ten point scale. [3] Egypt was one of ten countries with the highest levels of government restrictions on religion (out of 198 countries and territories). On the government restriction index Egypt’s score in 2007 was a 6.1 and in 2010 it was 7.6 (Pew Research Center 2013). The Pew Research Center’s analysis of religious freedom in 2013 showed that Egypt again had some of the highest government restrictions on religion (8.2) and some of the highest levels of social hostility (7.7) (Pew Research Center 2015).

Explaining the Denial of Freedom of Religion and Belief: Statism

Statism involves hierarchical control and limited autonomy (Hirst 2000). This involves an attempt by the government to enlarge the powers of the state and to obtain greater social control. As a result “the state does come to control more and more affairs of the society” (Hirst 1997). When religion and religious affairs is analyzed in the context of statism, we typically see government attempts to control and in some cases limit religious activities. This often involves hierarchical monitoring of religious institutions and individuals. In addition, we often see the government promoting a standard, uniform narrative about the role of religion in society.

The effects of statism in Egypt have been far-reaching. A central feature of the approach of the Egyptian government towards religion has involved control of some religious institutions and constraining the activities of other faiths. In addition, the government promoted a narrative about the government’s sole ability to protect Copts and a narrative about deviance and disruptive forces in society (atheists, Shia).

Scholars have argued that statism in Egypt developed out of the military coup in 1952 and under Nasser’s rule. During Nasser’s presidency, the state sought to control extensive aspects of Egyptian society including the political system and the economy (Rutherford 2008). Nasser also sought state control over religion and religious institutions in society. Al-Azhar lost much of its independence when Nasser nationalized this historic institution through Law 103 of 1961. This law placed the institution under the authority of the Ministry of Religious Endowments. A further indication of the loss of autonomy lies in the fact that the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar was not selected by senior clerics, but was appointed by the president (Rutherford 2008). In addition, Nasser criminalized the Baha’i faith in 1960 forcing them to hide their religious activities (Mahmood and Danchin 2014).

There is much empirical evidence that these statist policies which attempted to control religion and religious institutions were continued during the Mubarak regime. Fox (2007) has demonstrated that Egypt had high levels of governmental interference in religious affairs during this time. Funding for religious endowments (awqaf) was controlled by the state and the government monitored the sermons of imams in mosques. Another means by which to regulate religion centered on the fact that the government paid the salaries of numerous imams throughout the country. The grand Mufti of Egypt was also selected by the president, limiting his political independence.

Other aspects of the government’s statist approach involved controlling minority faiths through discrimination in the political and legal systems (Mahmood and Danchin 2014). While different religious minorities experience different forms of discrimination (some legal, others social and political) and some are relatively better off than others (Copts are relatively better off than Shiites) all have been denied central aspects of the fundamental right of freedom of religion and belief. The small community of Baha’is have faced legal discrimination, while Copts and Shiites have dealt with discrimination and violence against their person and property. As one Coptic Bishop noted the result was unequal citizenship: “the socio-political inequality that has existed over the past decades implies that many minorities, including Christians, have felt that they have a lesser citizenship (Angaelos 2013).”

There are a number of legal and constitutional factors that contributed to the denial of FoRB over the last few decades. The first problem stems from the constitution. Article 2 set shari’a as the primary source of legislation. This limited freedom of religion and belief in various ways including the inability to convert from Islam to another religion. Although Article 46 established freedom of religion, this was limited to (Sunni) Muslims, Christians and Jews. Other religious minorities did not have legal protection for practicing their faith. Religious minorities, especially those that practiced a faith viewed by the government as heretical including, Baha’i, Ahmadiya, Shiites, and Quranists, faced numerous legal obstacles. For example, the roughly 2000 Baha’is in Egypt faced numerous problems having their faith recorded on identity cards. In 2004 Egypt’s Civil Status Department issued an administrative decree limiting an individual’s religion to Judaism, Christianity or Islam on identification cards (Cantini 2009). This left Baha’is with few options. They can lie about their religious beliefs or forgo any identification documents such as identification cards or birth certificates. This administrative decision created numerous problems including having their marriages legally recognized and enrolling their children in school. Thus legally the Baha’is were being denied not only freedom of religion, but also equal citizenship. The denial of FoRB and the discrimination inherent in these polices can be traced back to Article 2. Although the Egyptian government stated it would issue ID cards to members of the Baha’i faith (with a dash in place of the religion) members of the Baha’is community continued to report problems obtaining these documents (Embassy Cable 2009). Furthermore, judicial decisions have stated that Baha’is do not have equal legal status in Egypt (Mahmood and Danchin 2014).

There are numerous examples of government discrimination and harassment of religious minorities. Few religious minorities served in the cabinet or in parliament. [4] Coptic Christians, Baha’i, Shiites, Ahmadiya faced discrimination in government employment. Many religious minorities also faced harassment from government officials. Because the government viewed Shiites as a dissident religious faith which holds beliefs contrary to the true Islam, it has arrested numerous Shiites. One report by an Egyptian human rights organization suggested that more than 300 Shiites had been arrested in the first half of 2009 alone (Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies 2009).

Political and institutional obstacles have also prevented the construction or renovation of religious sites and places of worship. For example, in 2006 there were over 100 applications submitted to build new churches. Many of these applications have been waiting for a decision for over a decade (US Commission on International Religious Freedom 2013). This is hardly adequate for a minority that is estimated to be about 10 % of the population and includes at least 6 million (if not 10 million) adherents. It is also worth mentioning that Sunni Muslims do not face these challenges when building a new mosque.

While the statist order under the Mubarak presidency may have weakened due to economic pressure (Rutherford 2008), and the Arab Awakening that ultimately pushed Mubarak from power, it did not vanish entirely. [5] Although statism had its origins in the secular approach of Nasser, some scholars suggested that it was also adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood while they held power from 2011 until the military coup in 2013.

Scott (2014) has argued that the Muslim Brotherhood under Morsi and the Justice and Development Party did not significantly alter the statist approach of its secular predecessors. Instead “the Muslim Brotherhood did in fact evolve to embrace secularism of a certain sort- a statism in which it is the state that determines the boundaries of religion and politics” (Scott 2014, 53). She focuses on the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood used the state and its institutions to manage religion, this included the 2012 constitution. The constitution that was drafted and ratified in 2012 had a number of similarities with the 1971 constitution. Article 2 maintained that the principles of shari’a were the chief source of legislation. Freedom of religion and religious tolerance for minority faiths such as the Baha’is, Shiites or Quranists was not enshrined in the constitution (Hamzawy 2014). The 2012 constitution continued to have the Supreme Constitutional Court- a state institution- decide when a law violated Article 2 and shari’a. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Justice and Development Party could have allowed senior religious scholars from Al-Azhar to be the final authority on compatibility between legislation and shari’a but it ultimately allowed the Supreme Constitutional Court to maintain its traditional role. [6] There were no efforts to restore Al-Azhar’s financial independence and relinquish control of its budget. In addition, Morsi and the Justice and Development Party assigned various Brotherhood members to work in the Ministry of Religious Endowments. The Muslim Brotherhood’s statist approach- appointing judges with Brotherhood sympathies for example, may have continued if not for the military coup.

El-Sisi’s military coup in 2013 removed Morsi and the Justice and Development Party from power and saw a strengthening of the statist approach to Egyptian society, including in the area of religion. Some have noticed that “the current instrumentalization of religion is employed as a buttress to state authority and legitimacy and in furtherance of the Egyptian regime’s statist vision” (Wahid Hanna 2015, 25).

El-Sisi’s government after the coup in 2013 and since presidential elections in 2014 has continued to control religion and religious institutions. The 2014 constitution maintains Article 2 and protects some faiths’ rights to practice their religion. [7] This does not ensure equal citizenship for non-Muslims. Articles 64 and 65 establish freedom of belief and practice. Article 64 states that freedom of belief is absolute and Article 65 protects freedom of thought. However the freedom to practice one’s religion is again limited to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Egyptians are free to believe, but there are limitations on manifesting these beliefs in public. While Egyptians are free to believe, they are not free to proselytize, especially if these efforts are aimed at converting Muslims. While the constitution and civil code do not prohibit the practice, local authorities sometimes harass or arrest individuals who attempt to convert Muslims to other faiths (US State Department 2011, 2014). Thus freedom of religion and belief is not guaranteed for all Egyptians and the legal system embeds discrimination in its founding document.

The constitution also requires legislation to be developed pertaining to building and renovation of houses of worship (Article 235). Another improvement is the prohibition on insulting religion and religious prophets from the 2012 constitution has been removed. However, there continue to be troubling judicial proceedings that raise questions about the new government’s commitment to freedom of religion and belief. [8] Amr Abdallah, a Shiite, was arrested in November 2013 and sentenced to five years in jail for contempt of religion for entering a mosque to celebrate the Shia holiday of Ashura (Salem 2014). In October 2015 the Religious Endowment Ministry closed the Imam Hussain Mosque to prevent Shiites from commemorating Ashura. Shiites remember the killing of Muhammad’s grandson Hussain in Karbala on this day. The Ministry justified closing the mosque to prevent the spread of “Shia untruths that occur on the Day of Ashura” (Ibrahim 2015).

While there are some improvements in the 2014 constitution, the deficiencies in the language of Egypt’s constitution can be seen when compared to Tunisia’s constitution which was also rewritten as a result of their revolution. Article 6 of Tunisia’s constitution offers a more complete statement of the importance of freedom of religion and belief and guarantee of this right. Article 6 states:

The state shall protect religion, guarantee freedom of belief and conscience and religious practices, and ensure the impartiality of mosques and places of worship away from partisan instrumentalisation. The state shall commit to spreading the values of moderation and tolerance, protecting sanctities and preventing attacks on them, just as it shall commit to preventing calls of takfer [calling another Muslim an unbeliever] and incitement to hatred and violence and to confronting them.

The 2014 constitution continues Al-Azhar’s financial dependence on the government while allowing the Grank Sheikh to be selected by “members of the Council of Senior Scholars” (Article 7). However this will be determined by laws developed by the government allowing for further interference within the institution. In addition, in March 2014 the Ministry of Religious Endowments issued a policy prohibiting anyone from giving a sermon without a permit. Furthermore, the Ministry issued guidelines for the content of Friday prayers (Fahmi 2014).

El Sisi’s rhetorical comments and symbolic actions (a visit to a Coptic Cathedral on Christmas Eve) should not distract us from his statist approach and instrumentalization of “religion for political purposes” (Wahid Hanna 2015; Dunne and Bentivoglio 2015; Kirkpatrick and Thomas 2015). Nor should we mistake his words about the need for a revolution in Islam as a genuine commitment to religious freedom. While his statements about the need for a ‘truly enlightened’ reading of Islamic texts and need to confront the radical, intolerant ideas offered by ISIS/Daesh may be welcoming by some in the West, it does not negate his government’s efforts to stifle freedom of speech and dissent (El Deeb and Keath 2015). Sisi has not embarked on a program to promote religious freedom or freedom of belief. His government has targeted atheists for debauchery. Furthermore, Coptic Christians are still struggling to get building permits and violence against religious minorities continued and remains largely unaddressed (Dunne and Bentivoglio 2015; Michael 2016).

Explaining the Denial of Freedom of Religion and Belief: Intolerance

Promoting freedom of religion and belief goes beyond governmental actions. Religious persecution can occur in daily life through interactions with other citizens. The norms and attitudes of a society are also essential to whether religious liberty flourishes in society or leads to sectarian violence. FoRB for all Egyptians will have a more difficult time developing if a significant portion of the population does not believe in tolerance.

Although statism typically involves government policies, it is also related to intolerance. The state has demonstrated for decades that it will not tolerate diverse political or opposing views. It is therefore not surprising that this intolerance would also be found in citizens in the Egyptian state. Thus statism not only affects government policies, it also influences the social climate in Egypt.

The societal discrimination, harassment and violence that prevents freedom of religion and belief from being realized in Egypt arises from intolerant messages in civil society, in the media and in educational settings. In various venues Egyptians receive a message that religious minorities are dangerous and their views (for example beliefs and doctrines of Shia Islam and the Baha’i faith) should be suppressed and rejected as a threat to the social fabric of society (Cantini 2009).

Violence Against Religious Minorities

Intolerance in Egyptian society can be demonstrated by a number of factors. First, sectarian violence continues to plague society regardless of the political leanings of the government. Rarely did a year go by without the death of a Copt at the hands of one of his/her Muslim neighbors. While not all violence between Copts and Muslims is centered on religion or is about religious freedom some of it has religious motivations. In some instances a conflict between Copts and Muslims is about an economic grievance or stems from a rumor of a forced conversion or insult (Tadros 2009). Attacks on Coptic Churches during religious services are clearly related to FoRB with churches as symbolic targets.

There were attacks in Imbala in 1991, in Temma in 1992, in Asyut in 1994. The attack in El Kosheh in 2000 killed 21 Copts (Tadros 2013). In the 9 months between October 2008 and June 2009 human rights organizations in Egypt documented 20 violent incidents against Coptic Christians, their property or their churches. In numerous governorates (Giza, Minya, Qena, Sharaqiya, Daqahliya, etc) Coptic Christian homes and churches were attacked. In some instances Muslims in the village complained to the security forces that an ‘unauthorized prayer service’ occurred in a home. Many Coptic Christians were forced to conduct religious services in a private home because the authorities would not let them build or renovate an existing church. The security services often threatened the priest for performing religious services but failed to punish the individuals who threatened or attacked the Coptic property (Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies 2009).

The government promoted the political message that without Mubarak’s protection the Copts would face severe threats and persecution at the hands of zealous Islamists (Brownlee 2013). However, when violence occurred, the government rarely held the perpetrators of religious violence accountable (US State Department 2011). Instead of punishing the perpetrators of violence they convened reconciliation meetings. These numerous violent instances demonstrate that the Mubarak regime was not a bulwark protecting the Copts from slaughter at the hands of radical Muslims. One NGO activist noted the spiral of impunity that develops:

“If after communal violence you use reconciliation meetings, you will not have accountability. And if there is no accountability you will have reoccurrence. Nothing happens if you are a Muslim who attacks someone else. They just have reconciliation meetings in Egypt.” [9]

The 2011 revolution did not improve promotion of the right of freedom of religion. The number of sectarian attacks increased significantly from 45 in 2010 to 70 in 2011 to 112 in 2012. Many instances of violence are never reported. Coptic Christians were attacked in Imbaba (May 2011) and Maspero (October 2011) and the government did not carry out serious investigations into these attacks. In some cases government forces failed to intervene and protect Christians from violence against persons and property. In October 2011 a group of Muslims attacked Coptic Christians as they were leaving religious services at the Mary Girgis Church. Local security forces convened a reconciliation meeting in which Copts were forced to withdraw their complaint against the attackers and promise to exclude Christians from other villages from church services. Those individuals responsible for the attack were not prosecuted, instead they were to repair two cars damaged during the attacks (Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies 2012). An environment of impunity where violent attacks are not punished is a troublesome development which has the potential to lead to further violence. Throughout 2011 attacks against Coptic Christians resulted in approximately 100 deaths (US Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012). In April of 2013 the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Cairo was attacked. Again the security forces did not intervene to prevent the violence. One often hears the message that “Copts are highly skeptical that the State would ever do anything good for them” (Shenoda 2012). Many Coptic Christians, such as Nirvan Amamdough, expressed concerned that the government was not protecting them: “we’ve got used to looking for someone to protect us, even if this safety is not stable…the army is not protecting Christians as it claims (Gabriel 2013).”

The violence and threats directed at Coptic Christians was largely ignored by the authorities and as a result many Copts fled their homes and villages for fear of their lives. A resident of Fanous, expressed fears of retribution after a building belonging to the Coptic Church was destroyed in January 2013.

Although we recognized the village youths who participated in the demolition work we could not name any of them as we are a minority living in the village and we do not want to have problems because we fear for the safety of our children. We go away to work in Cairo leaving our families behind in the village. I believe that as Copts we are destined to be always persecuted

(Abdelmassih 2013).

Violence against Shiites also existed in society. Religious hatred and discrimination towards Shiites was articulated on channels operated by allies of the Muslim Brotherhood (Saad and El Feglery 2014). In June 2013 a mob attacked the house of Arafat Ali Omer, a Shiite in the village of Zawyat Abu Musalam and killed 4 men including Sheikh Hassan Shehata. The killers called the four men infidels (Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights 2013; Human Rights Watch June 2013; Amnesty International 2013a). Riot police were nearby but did not intervene to stop the violence. The killings followed months of hostility directed against the Shia in the village and in the country. Leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Ahzar argued that the Shia faith must not be allowed to spread in Egypt. Local sheikhs from the mosques in Zawyat Abu Musalam told their followers that the Shia should be kicked out of the village a week before the attack (Human Rights Watch June 2013).

In the aftermath of the coup that removed President Morsi from power, the situation of many religious minorities deteriorated further. In towns and villages across Egypt including Nazla, Zerby and Beni Ahmed churches, schools and homes were set on fire. These attacks were motivated in part by the interim government’s decision to have military and security personnel forcibly remove protestors from camps in Cairo on August 14, 2013. Hundreds of President Morsi’s supporters were killed in these operations and some Egyptians decided to take revenge on Christians (Fahim 2013; George 2013; Amnesty International 2013). Some in the Muslim Brotherhood blame Coptic Christians for Morsi’s removal because Coptic Patriarch Tawadros II was part of the group of Egyptian leaders who supported General el-Sisi’s actions. [10] In addition the Coptic Church announced its support for the security forces: “The Egyptian Coptic Church is following the unfortunate developments on the ground of our country Egypt and emphasizes its strong stance with the Egyptian police, armed forces and other organizations of the Egyptian people in the face of groups of armed violence and black terrorism” (Egyptian Coptic Church 2013). Over 200 churches, Coptic homes, and schools were attacked and burned in revenge attacks in August (Jasser 2013). The violence continued over the next few months. In October 2013 assailants on a motorcycle shot and killed four Copts outside the Virgin Mary Church in Cairo.

Attitudes of Citizens

Beyond the violence directed at religious minorities many Egyptians are aware of the fact that the environment that they live in is not conducive to religious freedom. Public opinion polls indicate that less than 50 % of Egyptians (46 %) believe they are very free to practice their religion. Only 31 % believe that non-Muslims are very free to practice their faith and 18 % stated that non-Muslims are not too free or not free at all to practice their religion. [11] Furthermore, and more problematic is the fact that 2/3 of those who stated that non-Muslims are not free to practice their religion believe that it is a good thing that non-Muslims lack religious freedom (Sahgal and Grim 2013).

Additional survey research suggests that there is a small, but substantive subset of the Egyptian population that holds discriminatory and unequal attitudes towards religious minorities. The lack of tolerance is clear to many Egyptians. Rev. Maged Wadie Riyad, an evangelical pastor in Zerby explained, “we don’t have the culture of tolerance, or accepting one another, especially in rural areas (Fahim 2013).” The Arab Barometer survey reported that 22 % of the sample approved of the phrase “the political rights of non-Muslims in a Muslim country should be less than the political rights of non-Muslims” while 78 % of those polled in June 2011 opposed that statement (Arab Barometer Survey). A 2012 Gallup poll found that 25 % of Egyptians disagreed with freedom of religion. 25 % disagreed that all citizens should be allowed to observe any religion of their choice and practice it freely (Muasher 2014). The World Values Survey asked Egyptians if they trusted a person of another religion. 60 % said that they did not trust a person of another religion very much or not at all (World Values Survey 2013). The Pew Research Center’s analysis noted earlier showed that Egypt has some of the highest levels of social hostility (7.7) in the Middle East (Pew Research Center 2015). Additionally troubling is a Pew poll that reported that 88 % of Egyptians believe that anyone who leaves Islam deserves the death penalty (Sahgal and Grim 2013).

Given the fact that FoRB incorporates the right to change one’s religion and convert to another faith (apostasy is condemned in the Qur’an) it is not surprising that many Egyptians would be opposed to aspects of this right. In addition, some religious communities promote ideas that are contrary to Sunni Islam (for example, Baha’is view Baha Allah as a prophet and this is contrary to the Islamic view of Muhammad as the last prophet) and hence it is not surprising that a Sunni Muslim would not want individuals of other faith communities to spread these beliefs.

What these polls taken after the revolution demonstrate is that many Egyptians are aware that the right of religion and belief is not protected for all citizens. Many minorities also expressed their fears that their lives and property were not secure (Zogby Research Services 2013). Furthermore the polls show that a sizable portion of the population (~20 %) do not believe that their fellow citizens deserve to have their beliefs respected. This demonstrates that some Egyptians face societal discrimination and hostility.

The Implications of Statism and Intolerance in Egypt

Many steps are needed in order to see the fundamental right of freedom of religion and belief upheld in Egypt in the future. Although statism contributes to the intolerance in society, the problems arising from statism require a different set of policies than the difficulties that stem from intolerant attitudes in society. To address the challenges of statism and the government restrictions on FoRB various institutional changes are needed.

The government must uphold the constitution and protect this right throughout the country. A state’s constitution and laws need to guarantee any individual or group, not simply the three heavenly religions, the ability to worship, congregate, publish and discuss their beliefs. In addition to the legal framework, the government must establish political institutions (law enforcement, courts, independent oversight committees, etc.) to see that this right is more than merely words on a page. The government must protect places of worship and gatherings of individuals for all faiths by providing the appropriate security personnel.

Although some government officials condemned the violence, the government has done little since the July coup to protect Coptic Christians (BBC 2013). Given the fact that some Christian churches have been attacked repeatedly over the last few decades, the government should take a more proactive role in protecting these religious institutions. In many of these violent instances where Coptic Christians or churches were being attacked and destroyed the Egyptian security forces did nothing to stop the perpetrators. (Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies 2013).

To address the denial of FoRB due to intolerance and social hostilities, changes are needed in government policies specially revolving around education. However changes by social actors within civil society are also needed. Programs on television and other media outlets also need to develop and promote a tolerant message. In addition to institutions, society must possess the norms and dispositions that allow all believers and religious faiths the same opportunities to respect their traditions. Developing tolerant citizens, citizens who hold dispositions that respect religious diversity and diversity of belief is also essential to uphold this right. Promoting norms of religious tolerance and tolerance for those with different beliefs requires an educational system where religious differences are not disparaged, and members of all faiths and nonbelievers are described in a positive way in early schooling.

Studies have shown that education can increase the level of tolerance in a society in the Middle East (Al Sadi and Basit 2013). The ideas and beliefs that children encounter in their schools and neighborhoods have a powerful impact on the development of their worldview and these attitudes tend to be reinforced on a daily basis. Many Egyptians suffer from the poor quality of the public education system which does not prepare them with the skills needed for economic and political development. In addition Egypt needs “education policies that promote pluralism, tolerance, respect for different points of view, and critical thinking (Muasher 2014).”

For many decades Egyptians did not receive a tolerant message about religious minorities. Anti-Semitism continues within the Egyptian education system (Jasser 2013). A study on tolerance noted that Egyptian textbooks contain anti-Jewish material (IMPACT-SE 2011). As one human rights activist explained, he (a Coptic Christian) “had to learn about Muslim and Islam, but Muslims had no real knowledge of Christians.” [12] All Egyptian students learn about the Quran in Arabic classes and Arabic textbooks. So students, whether Muslim or not, will learn verses from the Quran as they develop their linguistic abilities. However lessons about other religious traditions were absent from the curriculum. If there are no discussions about the Baha’is, Shiites, Coptic Christians, etc. and the positive role they can play in society it is not difficult to understand how intolerant attitudes can develop in a society. [13] Also problematic is the content of the textbooks. Many Egyptian textbooks contain statements concerning the vices and errors of Judaism and Christianity (Groiss 2004). In 2012 a statement encouraging students to tolerate those who convert to another religion was deleted by the Ministry of Education on a recommendation by Al-Azhar (Hameed Faraj 2013). An 8th grade textbook explains, “Whoever desires other than Islam as religion- never will it be accepted from him, and he in the hereafter will be among the losers” (Muasher 2014). While statements such as these are not as intolerant as the textbooks in Saudi Arabia, they still do not convey a message of inclusion and respect for different faiths. The Egyptian government should revise textbooks and other educational materials to promote tolerance of all faiths and remove any materials which are intolerant or include hateful messages.

Civil Society’s Contribution to Religious Freedom

While the government plays a large role in the protection of religious liberty, actors in civil society can contribute to an environment where individuals can practice their faith without impediments. It is important to find people within a society to promote FoRB so that it is viewed as authentic. NGOs and human rights organizations are one of the main actors in civil society that can foster respect for FoRB. They can monitor violations of this right and educate the population on what this fundamental right requires. Some NGOs such as Beit el-Aela el-Misruyah and the Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services have attempted to renovate damaged houses of worship and promote inter-faith dialogue (Eurasia Review 2013; Makari 2007). [14] The media can also impact religious freedom in society based on its programming. If the media offers its audience inclusive programs that portray religious minorities and individuals with diverse beliefs in a positive light this can have a positive impact on society. If the shows that viewers see are dominated by hatred and intolerance towards minority faiths this can lead to violence in society. Unfortunately satellite television stations have spread religious hatred and intolerance throughout the society (Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies 2012). One example of this is the extensive anti-Semitism in the media. Cartoons, articles and talk shows in state run and private media outlets often depicts Jews in a demeaning manner. Numerous programs that deny or glorify the Holocaust also appeared on satellite television. There were few efforts by the Mubarak government or its successors to address the anti-Semitism in the society (US State Department 2014).

Religious organizations can also send a message of tolerance and respect for religious pluralism to their followers and to the country. When religious leaders speak or write they have an opportunity to employ tolerant language towards all religious faiths. In addition, they should denounce violence against other faiths whenever it occurs. Their behavior should demonstrate their commitment to FoRB. There are numerous ways to accomplish this. They can attend a multi faith dinner or conference. They can visit individuals of another faith that have been the victims of violence.

One of the most important religious institutions in Egypt is Al-Azhar which dates back to the tenth century. Al-Azhar has engaged in activities that would further religious tolerance and religious freedom for some religious groups. Al-Azhar has developed initiatives (including the Family Home) that stress the multi-denominational nature of Egyptian society. Al-Azhar is attempting to promote the belief that Egypt is home to a number of different faiths. In essence it is promoting a shared religious space. This initiative included sending a delegation to areas that experienced violence between Copts and Muslims to reduce interfaith tensions (US State Department 2011). Another initative (Love of the homeland is part of the faith) aims to “spread tolerance and moderation among students” (al-Khair 2014). Dr. Ahmed El-Tayyeb- the Grand Sheikh, also issued a document which states some of the basic freedoms that Egypt needs. He argues that freedom of belief and freedom of expression is the ‘cornerstone in the modern social structure,’ and is guaranteed by religious (Islamic) texts. He went on to explain

Accordingly, any aspect of compulsion, persecution, or discrimination on the basis of religion is prohibited. Everybody in society has the right to embrace any ideas he chooses, without encroaching upon the right of society to the maintenance of divine faiths, in light of sanctity accorded to all the three Abrahamic faiths; so, everyone is free to perform his rituals, and none should hurt the other’s feelings or violate the sanctity of his rites whether by words or deeds, and without breaching the public order

(El Tayyeb 2012).

El-Tayyeb also notes the importance of spreading a tolerant message in the media:

(we) appeal to those working in the field of religious, cultural, and political rhetoric over the media to pay attention to this important dimension in their practices and to seek a wise approach that helps form a public opinion marked by tolerance, broad-mindedness, resort to dialogue, and rejection of fanaticism (ibid). [15]

The former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Ali Gomaa also echoed his views on the importance of religious tolerance and harmony:

Egypt’s religious tradition is anchored in a moderate, tolerant view of Islam. We believe that Islamic law guarantees freedom of conscience and expression within the bounds of common decency and equal rights for women. And as head of Egypt’s agency of Islamic jurisprudence, I maintain that the religious establishment is committed to these values…

Any attempt to sow discord among the people of this land must be opposed in the strongest terms possible. I have no doubts that forces that seek to divide Egyptian Muslims from Egyptian Christians—and Egyptian Muslims and Christians amongst themselves—will ultimately fail. Egypt has been a symbol of coexistence for centuries and will continue to be by the grace of God. Islam will have a place in Egypt’s democracy. But it will be as a pillar of tolerance and harmony, never as a means of oppression

(Ali Gomaa 2013).

The language of tolerance and dialogue and the rejection of persecution and discrimination is praiseworthy. However it only extends to the three Abrahamic faiths. To promote genuine freedom of religion for all Egyptians Baha’is, Shiites, Quranists, and other religious minorities must also be free from persecution and discrimination. Al Azhar has criticized Shia efforts to build mosques and places of worship inside Egypt. While Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa encouraged a dialogue between Shiites and Sunnis, he also advocated limiting the spread of the Shia faith in Egypt (US State Department 2012). Al Azhar has also portrayed the Baha’is as a fifth column that should be limited in their ability to influence and interact with Egyptian society (Cantini 2009). In summary Al Azhar and its leaders have at times articulated a message of tolerance and religious freedom. However, Al Azhar and its leaders have also supported intolerance towards Shiites, Baha’is, Jews and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. For FoRB to develop in Egypt citizens need to hear a consistent, inclusive message of tolerance for all faith communities from Al Azhar and especially its leaders.

Despite this criticism Al-Azhar’s efforts to promote an interfaith dialogue with the Coptic Church are positive steps. As one US official noted, “Al Ahzar can play a positive role. They have a lot of credibility. They have spoken out against intolerance.” [16] A combination of government policies and grassroots efforts to promote religious freedom for all Egyptians are needed for this religiously diverse society to halt some of the sectarian conflict that exists in society and sow the seeds so that religious freedom can grow in the future.


Unfortunately the Arab Awakening and the Egyptian Revolution has done little to date to improve the fundamental right of freedom of religion and belief in Egypt. In fact the situation has deteriorated for some religious minorities in Egypt. This is a result of not only the statist policies of the government, but also the social hostilities and intolerance that exists within Egyptian society. The violence and decline in public order has contributed to a climate which allows attacks on minorities with little fear of prosecution or accountability. Furthermore violence against Coptic Christians helps promote a political narrative that the Muslim Brotherhood supporters are radical terrorists that need to be dealt with harshly by Al Sisi and the government to provide security for Egyptians.

For FoRB to exist in a society, the state must minimize its interference in civil society and specifically in internal religious matters and religious institutions. The more the state regulates aspects of religion (both for the majority faith and for minority faiths), the less likely it is that FoRB will be realized in society. To address the denial of FoRB that stems from statism and the Egyptian government’s attempt at social control in religious affairs a greater emphasis on pluralism is required. Religious pluralism would allow for diverse domains of religious authority to implement various religious policies and programs without the interference of the state.

This would require the Egyptian government to revise some articles of the constitution to articulate nondiscrimination for all faiths and non-believers and not simply Sunni Muslims, Christians and Jews. Further government actions would include policies to allow all faith communities to build and renovate places of worship. The judicial system (prosecutors and judges) must prosecute any individual who incites or commits acts of violence against individuals and religious institutions and property.

Thus Egypt needs to decrease the statism that currently exists for majority and minority faith communities. Unfortunately there is little evidence that the Egyptian government under President el Sisi is committed to the institutional changes that are needed for pluralism and FoRB to flourish.

Beyond a top-down approach and decrease in the statism that exists in Egyptian society, a tolerant civil society can contribute to the protection of this fundamental right. Al Azhar, has at times, articulated support for freedom of religion for Coptic Christians and has worked with Christian groups to further this message. These efforts at interfaith dialogue are important first steps, but they must go further to include all faiths and especially minority faiths which they have theological differences with.

Other aspects of civil society can likewise play a role in encouraging tolerance throughout the country. Many human rights organizations have defended minority groups and atheists. The media can contribute to a more tolerant environment. Unfortunately both state affiliated and private media organizations have demonized minorities (especially Shiites, Baha’is and Jews) in print and on television. It will only be through a combination of grassroots efforts in civil society and changes in government policies that FoRB will develop in society. Unfortunately there few signs that these changes will occur. El Sisi has given little indication that he is interested in human rights, the rule of law or encouraging pluralism and tolerance in Egypt. In addition, there is little evidence to suggest that media outlets or religious institutions (Al Azhar or the Coptic hierarchy) will embrace religious freedom for all faiths or tolerate diverse ideas and opinions if viewed as a threat to their perceived interests. Given the institutional flaws, intolerant dispositions, and civil strife, it is unlikely that religious liberty will develop in the short term.


I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier version of this paper.


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Published Online: 2016-5-6
Published in Print: 2016-6-1

©2016 by De Gruyter

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