Long read: The history of religious persecution in Egypt

In November 2018, seven Coptic Christians were killed and 18 injured when terrorists attacked the bus they were travelling in to visit the Monastery of Anba Samuel the Confessor in Minya, Upper Egypt. The attack took place in the same location where 28 Coptic Christians were killed and 23 injured less than 18 months previously by masked gunmen who opened fire on the vehicles they were travelling in.

These violent attacks are part of a wider, longer term pattern of religious discrimination and persecution faced by Egypt’s Coptic community. The term ‘persecution’ is not used lightly; according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, persecution is ‘the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity.’

In order to understand the root causes of religious persecution in contemporary Egypt, it is important to examine the ideological, socio-political and cultural factors that have historically underpinned the persecution of religious minorities in the country.

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Religious Identity and Conflict in the Middle East

The Arab Spring reignited a debate within the Middle East and in academic circles about the universality of human rights and their compatibility, or incompatibility, with culture and religion. Although the Arab Spring was marked by the rise of Political Islam movements, it also opened the door  to discussions on topics that had long been taboo, such as sectarianism, racism and gender equality in the Arab world.

Religion has dominated politics in the Middle East for centuries, and plays a significant role in the lives of individuals: their rights, opportunities and social status are all impacted by it.

Constitutions, laws, education systems and even art and sport are viewed through the lens of religion, and every effort is made to ensure that these elements of society comply with religious norms and symbolism.

Sectarianism remains a powerful political, social and cultural force, and the source of most conflicts in the Middle East. Many of the current conflicts in the region have deep historical roots – most notably the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and the Sunni-Shi’a division.

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Remembering Egypt’s Revolution

In Egypt 25 January has historically been National ‘Police Day’, commemorating the day in 1952 when 50 policemen were killed and others were injured by the British for refusing  to hand over their weapons to and evacuate Ismaïlia Police Station. However, owing to the events of 25 January 2011, the day is now known to many as the “Day of Rage”, when unprecedented anti-government protests broke out across the country. Three days later, on the “Friday of Anger” a huge demonstration convened in Tahrir Square in Cairo, with protesters demanding the removal of President Hosni Mubarak. On 11 February, 18 days after the demonstrations began, the President stepped down 2011.

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Suffocating Democracy: The Suppression of NGOs in Egypt

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, once said, “Civil society is the oxygen of democracy”. If this is the case, then Egypt’s democracy is slowly suffocating.

The human rights community in Egypt currently faces an unprecedented risk from what a number of rights activists feel is the worst assault in their history. In addition to the imposition of multiple travel bans, asset freezes and arrests of human rights defenders in the country, the Egyptian Government has also re-opened investigations from 2011 into NGOs they believe have committed the offence of receiving foreign funding.

Investigated, Bound and Gagged

The investigations into both local and foreign NGOs began after the former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year rule was ended by a popular uprising in 2011. The investigations were justified by officials at the time on the premise that they were going after organisations funded from abroad which they alleged were working to destabilise the country.

In addition to the re-opening of the investigations, human rights defenders working for these NGOs have been increasingly targeted. They have been summoned for questioning, regularly banned from travel and have had their passports confiscated and their personal and family assets frozen.

To make matters worse, the investigating Judge in the re-opened NGO case, Hesham Abdel Meguid, has issued a legal gagging order that prevents every media outlet in Egypt from publishing any material on the case, aside from official statements issuing from the court. This further compounds the problems Egyptian NGOs are suffering – not only are they being harassed, they are being gagged from talking about being harassed.

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