Atheists in Egypt: Life on the Edge of Civil Death

2 January 2022

*Originally published on The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy

Atheists and nonbelievers in Egypt continue to suffer regardless of the positive indications from officials regarding the freedom of religion and faith. Atheists in the country live between security-related prosecution and social ostracism. Official institutions have not ceased fighting atheism publicly, explicitly, and relentlessly since 2014, when a government plan “to fight atheism” was announced in collaboration with official religious institutions. It seemed like there were two official announced discourses. 

The first one is represented by the statements of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who consistently emphasizes respect for freedom of religion and faith of all Egyptians. He spoke clearly during the launching of the National Strategy of Human Rights about the state’s respect for the freedom of individuals not to believe, saying, “If someone told me that they are neither Muslim, nor Christian, nor Jewish, nor followers of any other religion in the world, they are free. It is because I am zealous for my religion that I respect their will, for the gist of the issue is freedom; the freedom of faith that God granted us when he told you that you are free to believe or not.” A second contrary discourse also prevails, which is embodied in the policies and practices of other religious and official sectors that view nonbelievers as potential enemies, a source of tension and threat, or psychopaths who must undergo coercive treatment in order to restore them to sanity. 

Proponents of the latter approach deal with atheism as a new phenomenon that emerged in the years following the 25 January Revolution in 2011 and believe the numbers of atheists to be increasing. This is despite the fact that Egypt has always witnessed the existence of believers and nonbelievers throughout its history, which was recorded during the Liberal Period when an intellectual battle raged between two authors in 1937, after Ismail Adham wrote his manifesto Why am I an Atheist?, to which another author replied with another manifesto entitled Why am I a believer? While individuals declared their atheism during successive periods, this did not represent a public phenomenon. Furthermore, atheism had been generally taboo until social media provided youth with outlets to express themselves and their opinions freely. Many Facebook groups were created to call for the recognition of atheism and for an end to obliging atheists to renounce their beliefs. They appeared in public television programs and raised their demands for religious freedom and secularism of the state. 

During this period, a number of atheists were subject to legal and social prosecution whether through trial for defamation of religion or social harassment, such as Alber Saber. However, they were not subject—in general—to explicit and institutionalized hate speech and incitement. In 2014, there was a pronounced shift through the announcement of the Ministry of Youth of a governmental national plan to confront and eliminate atheism in collaboration with the Muslim and Christian religious institutions. 

Visible activity by religious institutions 

Both Muslim and Christian institutions have agreed to fight atheism as an enemy and a real threat to their role and conservative religious views. The official Muslim institutions, namely al-Azhar, the Ministry of Endowments, and Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta have been actively organizing different events against atheism. Minister of Endowments Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa has stated that there is a plan “to immunize, confront, treat, and prevent” the spread of atheism. He also added during a parliamentary discussion on the spread of the “phenomenon of atheism”: “The ideas of atheists, gays, and extremists are ticking time bombs similar to those of extremism and terrorism. We cannot eliminate extremist and terrorist ideologies unless we firmly face laxity and deviation.”

In a similar vein, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Ahmed El-Tayyeb affirmed in many television interviews: “New Atheism now has institutions, societies, and funds, and youth are now encouraged to attack religion. This reminds me of Marxist Atheism, which targeted religions at the time, describing them as ‘opium.’” Furthermore, Al-Azhar established a “Bayan” Unit to face atheism, which held face-to-face meetings with atheists to convince them of the “moderation of Islam.” In addition, the Observatory of Takfiri Fatwas affiliated with Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta issued a report, in which it monitors the reasons for the increase of the phenomenon of atheism among youth in Islamic nations, claiming that the country has 866 atheists.

Egyptian churches have followed the line of fighting atheism. Moreover, the words of their leaders have become regularly present in the official discourse to the extent that they cited atheism—for the first time—as a reason for the invalidation of marriage contracts in the Christian Family Bill that is being proposed by the Egyptian churches to the Ministry of Justice. The response plan included various activities, such as the organization of events. 

The Egypt Council for Churches has held a conference to address atheism, many booklets have been published, such as A Conversation with an Atheist by priest and famous preacher Daoud Lamei and The Illusion of Atheism by Father Ibrahim Azer, a teaching assistant at the Theological Seminary of Al-Muharraq Monastery, who believes the 25 January Revolution of 2011 to be one of the most important reasons for atheism. Meanwhile, Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, dedicated a number of his weekly sermons to the topic of atheism, underscoring the grave danger it poses to Egyptian society, even if percentage of atheists is small. 

Different forms of suffering for atheists 

Johan Candelin’s three-phase model of persecution is a useful way to analyze atheism in Egypt. This model breaks persecution down into (1) disinformation, (2) discrimination, and (3) violence. 

The first phase addresses the spread of false, prejudiced, and negative stereotypes, which is used to justify discrimination and acts of hostility. In this vein, society has viewed an atheists as degenerates, because they seek freedom from the restraints of religion, abandoning it and deviating from its teachings. For example, Dr. Ahmad Ayad, Head of the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts at Tanta University, pointed out that individual cases of atheist students were discovered at university as a result of their watching videos and opinions that propagate this thought. They were, according to him, attracted to believe in atheism as a result of their fragile personalities and vulnerability; therefore they were provided with psychotherapy sessions, and they were dealt with “very seriously and professionally” until the university succeeded in restoring their sanity. 

The second phase of the model deals with discrimination in the fields of legislation, laws, and employment. In this regard, the Egyptian constitution in Article 64 stipulates that “freedom of belief is absolute. The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing places of worship for the followers of revealed religions is a right organized by law.” A close reading of the article reveals that the constitution recognizes only the three “divine religions” religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. This leads to the non-recognition of other religions and faiths, including atheism. This means that atheists are deprived of many rights, foremost among which is marriage, since the state recognizes only religious marriage and forces atheists to register a religious identity different from what they really believe in official documents. 

The Egyptian Penal Code does not have any penalizing provisions against or criminalization of atheism. However, it includes the so-called the Article of Blasphemy (Article 98), which stipulates imprisonment between six months and five years. This article has been applied selectively to religious minorities, including atheists. During the last three years, four separate prison sentences were handed down to Anas Hassan and Sherif Gaber (3 years), and Ibrahim Khalil and Abdul Rahman Al Gady (5 years). This is not to mention other cases that have led to pre-trial detention and travel bans

Under the many invitations and statements raised to explicitly criminalize atheism, there have been attempts to enact a law concerning this issue. These attempts included the Bill of Atheism Criminalization announced by Omar Hamrosh, Secretary of the Commission of Religious Affairs in the Egyptian Parliament (2015-2020). He stated that this phenomenon is promoted in the society as a form of religious freedom under false pretenses. Al-Azhar supported the bill, but the law has neither been submitted nor, naturally, approved due to the lack of support of the parliamentary critical mass and public criticism leveled at it. 

The third phase of Candelin’s model is violent persecution, which includes the threat of violence, physical harassment, and violent assaults due to religion or faith. Although there have been no reported violent incidents or major assaults against atheists, some have complained that they have been assaulted by society at large, whether by their families or neighbors who learn of their beliefs. On top of this, some have been suspended from work after their beliefs have been reported to their employers, forcing many atheists to masquerade for the sake of personal safety. An atheist once recounted his experience, saying, “Atheists live like drug dealers; they fear coming out as atheists because they will lose many of their friends, will be treated as outcasts, and will be accused of psychopathy.” 

Towards a better understanding of the context 

The attack on atheism and the refusal to accept the existence of atheists in Egypt are often based on the fact that “Islam is the religion of the state” and the “principles of Islamic Shari’a are the principal source of legislation,” according to Article 2 of the constitution. Naturally, it follows that abandoning the official religion becomes an act that undermines the authority of these institutions and a rebellion against the conservative religious mainstream. Consequently, the abandonment of religion or atheism is dealt with not, as personal right but as a part of a conspiracy that seeks to jeopardize and weaken religion. As a result, weakening state institutions which derive a large part of their legitimacy from their adoption of the defense of religion and its values.

A free life for any religious denomination is impossible without respecting and enhancing the freedom of religion and faith in its broad sense for every individual. The same applies to the other rights closely linked to it, such as the freedom of expression, the freedom of peaceful assembly, and the freedom of organization. This is because Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the freedom of monotheism, non-monotheism, and atheistic beliefs, for the application of the subject is not limited to traditional religions. In addition, Paragraph No. 2 of the article prohibits coercion that impairs the right for anyone to follow a religion or a faith. This includes the threat of physical force or penal sanctions with the intention to force people to either cling to their religious beliefs and gatherings or to abandon their beliefs.