Activism has proven to help amend laws in Egypt, from child marriage to animal rights. Other campaigns, however, are far more socially contentious – some, like atheism and sexual orientations, are considered culturally inappropriate. Nevertheless, activists continue to campaign for a change in certain controversial laws in Egypt.
With the government’s recent launch of its new National Human Rights Strategy in September 2021, and with a large number of activists being pardoned from prison, activists will be aiming to step up their efforts in the coming period.
PHOTOGRAPHING UNSIGHTLY LOCATIONS AND MEDIA EQUIPMENT
Up until July 2022, people were unofficially not permitted to photograph or film any public spaces in Egypt without prior approval from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
This has now changed, following an approved draft law issued by former Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Khaled El-Enany, as announced in an exclusive interview with talk show host Amr Adeeb.
The Ministry’s recent decision comes shortly after American food blogger Sonny Side, stated on his YouTube food and travel channel, ‘Best Ever Food Review Show’, that “Egypt is one of worst places for filmmakers”. He added that Egyptian security personnel mistreated him while filming Egyptian dishes, warned him to not film in unsightly locations, confiscated their cameras, and shut their filming down.
Side’s last video regarding his trip to Egypt, shot after leaving the country, was an open criticism and formal request for more lenient laws towards capturing footage in Egypt. Side’s open call for change was posted prior to the amended law.
El-Enany publicly cautioned photography enthusiasts that this amendment does not protect against documenting Egypt’s unsightly locations – this includes ugly scenes, like littered areas, government buildings, informal settlements, and security officials.
These complexes include buildings and sites belonging to the Armed Forces or Egyptian Police, ministry buildings, legislative councils, other governmental facilities, and any other sovereign and security authorities.
Under the new law, permits are still required for those with professional media equipment, drones, and underwater cameras. The penalty for flying an unauthorized drone ranges from one to seven years. If deemed a terrorist tool, that sentence can extend to life imprisonment.
BLASPHEMY: ATHEISM AND RELIGIOUS MANIPULATION
Atheism is yet another crime not explicitly cited in the penal code—still, some Egyptians have been imprisoned after publicly declaring their atheism on the basis of proselytizing.
In the transitional presidential period between Mohamed Morsi and Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, sparked by the 2013 uprising, a group of Egyptian atheist activists attempted to normalize the existence of non-believers within Egyptian society – a matter that is often fervently opposed by a predominantly religious society.
Ahmed Harqan, an openly atheist Egyptian, was one of the first few atheists to feature in televised debates about atheist rights shortly after Al-Sisi’s first election victory. He later survived an alleged premeditated mob attack in 2014, was arrested on the grounds of allegedly defaming Islam on television, and permanently left the country in 2020.
Legal action taken against atheism often relies on Article 98 of the penal code, informally known as the Blasphemy Law, which stipulates that any person that exploits or condemns Egypt’s religions can be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison.
In September 2021, in a live press event for Egypt’s new National Human Rights Strategy, Al-Sisi publicly addressed the possibility of Egypt openly accepting atheists.
“I respect nonbelievers. If someone tells me [they are] neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew or that he or she does not believe in religion, I would tell them, you are free to choose,” Al-Sisi explained.
Al-Sisi followed his statement by questioning if religious Egyptians will be willing to accept their existence, and highlighting the difference between accepting atheism and accepting religious defamation.
On the other side of the religious spectrum, that same article of law criminalizes the exploitation and distortion of religion, including by religious figures.
Most recently, in June 2022, popular television cleric Mabrouk Attia was referred to investigations following remarks that blamed Nayera Ashraf, a femicide victim, for her own murder – citing her lack of veil and choice of dress as the reason behind her murder.
LGBTQ+ AND SEXUAL ORIENTATION
Egypt’s legal codes do not explicitly mention members of the LGBTQ+ community, nor do they explicitly criminalize homosexuality.
Yet there have been a number of instances where members of the LGBTQ+ community have been arrested. In 2017, following a controversial, rainbow-flag-laden performance by Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila, Egyptian authorities were quick to arrest those who seemed to support the LGBTQ+ community, in addition to banning the band from playing in Egypt indefinitely.
The question remains: what makes these acts criminal if not directly mentioned in Egypt’s criminal code?
Egypt’s Law 10/1961, commonly known as the Debauchery Law, has been used to apply criminal action toward ‘homosexual activity’. While the law was initially intended to criminalize prostitution, its application has sometimes been extended to crack down on ‘sexual activity’.
“Whoever employs, persuades or induces a person, be they male or female, with the intention of committing debauchery or prostitution and this is by means of deception, force, threats, abuse of authority or other means of coercion, the punishment is imprisonment for a period not less than one year and not more than five years,” reads Article 2, Section A of the law.
There are, however, variances in rights between different members LGBTQ+ community. Sex reassignment operations for trans Egyptians are legally available upon approval from Egypt’s Ministry of Health, a medical examination, a psychiatric examination, and, finally, final approval from Egypt’s official religious bodies, either the Dar Al-Ifta or Alexandria’s Coptic Orthodox Church.
However, gaining approval for the surgery is incredibly difficult, according to Amr Al-Najari, a professor in plastic surgery at Qasr Al-Aini hospital.
‘FAKE NEWS’ AND SOCIAL MEDIA
With the popular rise of digital news and social media over the past decade – integrals tool in Egypt’s 2011 Revolution – the Egyptian government enacted a law in 2018 that regulates website and social media activity, making both companies and citizens subject to prosecution if there is evidence of “fake news” or posts that incite public disorder.
In 2017, Egypt blocked 21 news sites, including Qatari-based Al-Jazeera, Mada Masr, and CairoScene, for the “intentions to spread lies”, show support for terrorist groups, and for running a news site without proper licensing from the Supreme Council for Media Regulation.
Egypt’s Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), a non-governmental organization that works on promoting freedom of expression and thought, launched a campaign to unblock news sites in 2020.
“The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated how important access to information is […] In such circumstances, independent press sources become the primary refuge for citizens looking for the truth of what is happening, whether in terms of health policies or other social and economic impacts,” reads AFTE’s announcement.
On 8 September 2022, four Mada Masr journalists were charged with spreading false news and inciting instability in the nation – social media was referenced as a tool of destabilization against the Egyptian state by the accusers.
Another code of law stipulates that any social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers will be treated as media outlets and are obliged to avoid fake news and public disorder through social media posts.
The penalty for inciting public disorder through news sites or social media posts is up to one-year imprisonment.
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