CAIRO – Egypt’s parliament ratified legislation earlier this month outlawing public demonstrations in or near religious establishments. While government officials say the move is meant to preserve the inviolability of Egypt’s mosques and churches, critics say the new law aims to further stifle freedom of expression.
“The goal of the new law is obvious: to stop people from holding political protests,” Mohammed Abdel Qaddous, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement and head of the Freedoms Committee at the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, told IPS. “The move is entirely in keeping with the behavior of a police state.”
In the first week of April, parliament which is dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party approved a bill banning public demonstrations in or near formal places of worship. Initially tabled by the Ministry of Religious Endowments, the law was approved by the (upper) Shura Council in February, after which it was referred to the national assembly for ratification.
Under the terms of the law, expected to come into effect next month, those found guilty of organizing demonstrations in or near religious establishments mosques or churches will be liable to jail terms of up to one year. Anyone found participating in such demonstrations can face up to six months in prison.
According to Religious Endowments Minister Hamdi Zaqzouq, the law aims to preserve the sanctity of religious establishments, which have often been used as venues for political protest. “Freedom of expression should not be exploited to justify the violation of the sanctity of places of worship,” Zaqzouq was quoted as saying in the state press.
But while supporters of the law say it will be applied to all religious buildings in Egypt, some critics say the new legislation specifically targets Cairo’s high-profile al-Azhar mosque and university.
“The law specifically aims to preempt public demonstrations at al-Azhar,” said Abdel Qaddous. “It represents a continuation of the government’s long-standing policy of police domination over Egypt’s mosques.”
First established in the 10th century, al-Azhar University is today considered the foremost institution for Islamic jurisprudence in the Sunni Muslim world. Along with its reputation for religious scholarship, however, the university has frequently served as a venue for political protest.
Within the last several years, numerous demonstrations have been held at al-Azhar usually after Friday prayers by the Muslim Brotherhood, secular opposition parties, and pro-democracy activists. It has been the scene of protest over a range of issues, including unpopular government policies, U.S. and Israeli violence in the region, police torture, and soaring food prices.
Abdel Qaddous emphasized the significant role played by al-Azhar in the development of Egyptian political life over the course of the last century.
“From the 1919 revolution to recent protests against the Israeli siege of Gaza, al-Azhar has been the source of numerous political demonstrations throughout Egypt’s modern history up to the present,” said Abdel Qaddous.
As recently as April 16, thousands of demonstrators gathered at al-Azhar to protest stiff jail sentences recently handed down to Muslim Brotherhood leaders by a military court.
Naguib Gabriel, head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Union for Human Rights, and former judge, agreed that the law’s overriding purpose was to stifle popular dissent.
“This legislation aims to diminish our freedoms and silence the political opposition,” Gabriel told IPS. He went on to note that the law lacked constitutional legitimacy “because the right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by both Egyptian law and the national charter.”
According to Gabriel, however, the new legislation is not intended to foil public protests at al-Azhar, but rather at Egypt’s churches and cathedrals.
“The law is meant to thwart demonstrations at churches by Coptic Christians,” he said. “The Muslim Brotherhood can hold demonstrations in the streets or at universities the Christians only have the churches to rally to.”
Although less frequent than the protests seen at al-Azhar, churches, too, have occasionally served as rallying points for popular protest.
In late 2004, massive demonstrations by Coptic Christians were held at Cairo’s Orthodox Cathedral after rumors of forced conversion of Christians to Islam. After four days of angry protests, the confrontation only ended after Coptic authorities received government assurances that their grievances would be addressed.
“When the Copts want to express their anger over particular issues of concern, they resort to using churches,” explained Gabriel.
Coptic Christians Egypt’s oldest and largest Christian denomination are estimated at roughly 10 percent of the population, although the figure is widely disputed. The rest of the population is almost exclusively Sunni Muslim.
Gabriel said he intends to appeal against the new law before Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial authority. “I am planning to challenge the law once it comes into effect next month,” he said. “Discussions are ongoing among several local human rights groups that are also planning to endorse the legal appeal.”
Abdel Qaddous, for his part, says political protests at al-Azhar will persist, regardless of the new legislation.
“If we feel the need to express ourselves by way of popular protest, we will demonstrate at the al-Azhar law or no law,” he said. “The popular will, in the end, will prove stronger than any legislation.”