Who is afraid of Egyptian atheists?


For some time, I have been receiving emails from some foundation about a course entitled “How to talk to an atheist?” I ignored the whole thing the first couple of times, but was intrigued when the same email kept coming almost once a week, so I decided to see what this is all about. When I checked the “course description,” I found out that “talking” to atheists meant talking them out of their decision to become atheists and I was even more intrigued. Why would anyone want to interfere in people’s personal choices in such a blatant manner, let alone be trained in the strategies required to do so? I have no idea if there are any people who enroll in this course and if they are already out guiding stray sheep back to the flock, but that is not the point!

A ‘remarkable rise’ in atheists

A few days ago, I read that Egypt’s predominantly-Islamist legislature is to discuss the reasons and repercussions of the “remarkable rise” in the number of atheists in the country. Those discussions, from what I understood, are to bring together all state institutions that influence public opinion to figure out the means of containing the crisis before it gets out of hand. Let me first point out that it is impossible to have accurate statistics of the number of atheists in Egypt, not only because of the lack of documents that prove so, but also because in a country where the official discourse is becoming increasingly hostile towards minorities, including Christians, it will be a little bit unwise of atheists to “come out” at this stage. However, the actual number of atheists and whether or not it has actually increased lately is not the problem!

What matters most here is the sudden interest in an issue that could not in any way be linked to any of the innumerable political, economic, and social disasters Egypt is currently going through and that is too personal to be a subject of public debate to start with. It is very easy to go along with the traditional conspiracy theory and claim that this is just another of those distraction ploys the regime has been in the habit of devising to sedate frequent bursts of discontent and we cannot totally rule out this option. However, it will be simplistic, and quite hazardous, to stop at that simply because of how deliberate the choice of topic is and how ominous the outcome could be.

Abolishing freedom of faith

Warnings of rising atheism have nothing to do with the danger they might pose to national security which is compromised on many other fronts that the government is totally overlooking. It actually has to do with laying the foundations of a religious state and abolishing all principles of citizenship and which include freedom of faith. Like any dictatorship, the regime is selecting a group of enemies on whom it can lay the blame for anything it chooses to label as “destabilizing” and a term as broad as “atheist,” like its medieval equivalent “heretic,” would be perfect for instigating public opinion and presenting the state as the guardian of faith. The charge known as “deriding religion,” which was leveled against a number of journalists and activists, was actually a prelude to that of atheism and a test balloon in a society that does not see religion as debatable and would automatically turn against anyone who is suspected of questioning its very essence.

Add to this the fact that Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, have for some time been trying to present the any of opposition’s initiatives against them as malicious attempts to undermine the Islamic identity of Egypt and establish a “secular” state which, according to them, has no other business except marrying off homosexuals and promoting abortion. Labeling any of the troublemakers as “atheists” would, therefore, be much easier than other hackneyed charges that no longer sell like the traditional “compromising national security,” “inciting violence,” and “spreading false information” or the brand new “insulting the president” and would guarantee substantial damage to the public support the accused would have gotten had the accusation been any of the above. It might not be long before new laws are drafted to criminalize atheism and to come up with all absurd types of legal definitions and incriminating evidence.

Freedom as a restricted concept

Presenting atheism as a malignant ailment that is bound to destroy the Egyptian society also portends a serious clampdown on personal freedoms and which, of course, includes choice of faith. Dealing with atheism as a problem implies an obligation to follow particular religion(s) and transforms those who do not conform into outcasts, thus generating a sense of hostility that can later translate into aggression towards difference and rebellion. Freedom would, paradoxically, become a restricted concept and would only be practiced within the limits set by an authority whose only means of survival is the subjugation of its subjects. This would not only apply to religious beliefs, but would eventually encompass all sorts of ideologies that are seen as detrimental to the ruling powers and all sorts of actions that stir the indignation of the public at their inefficiency. And if we assume that freedom of thought is the most sophisticated form of human emancipation, it is no longer hard to imagine what the fate of other freedoms would be if this one is eliminated.

Although I realize that this is not the crux of the matter, I couldn’t help asking myself if the number of atheists in Egypt is really on the rise and if so what the reason could be. It was then that I wondered if the esteemed institutions that decided to sound the alarm bells on the catastrophe are not aware of why such a drastic change could happen at that point in time and in a society that is generally known to be religious. I was also curious to know if they decided to champion the cause because they want to lay the blame on another party or just hide their role in the very problem they are trying to solve or simply furnish a proper introduction for a whole set of drastic measures to come or all of the above. I was even more curious to discover if they were taken by surprise that it is their own religious discourse that created those anti-religious sentiments or if this discourse was originally meant to create those sentiments.

A few days ago Pope Francis said that atheists are “good people if they do good.” He was not under any pressure to say so and would not have been reprimanded had he implied otherwise. He was not interested to know how many atheists there are or what their reasons might be and did not launch any initiatives to “talk” to them. He simply had the moral responsibility to deliver such a universal call for tolerance and coexistence, one that, believe it or not, might change many people’s take on Christianity, unfortunately the exact opposite is occurring in Egypt with regards to Islam.

Egyptian soldiers between a rock and a hard place


Everybody knows the man by the name of Gilad Shalit. He was a corporal in the Israeli Defense Forces who was abducted by Hamas in June 2006 and was not released until October 2011. During those five years seemingly endless negotiations, frequently permeated with threats by Israeli authorities, lobbying by the International Community, and the mediation of third parties, went on relentlessly in an attempt to reach a deal that would secure Shalit’s safe release.

My political stance on Israel aside, I have to admit that I was impressed by the Israeli government’s persistence in rescuing Shalit and its willingness to offer a few hefty concessions to see this materialize. Shalit was not just treated as a citizen whose natural right is to be protected by his country, but his situation was all the more critical because he was a soldier in the army, a man who would sacrifice his life for his country so his country, in turn, is required to do all what it takes to ensure his safety. Israel considered the abduction of one of its soldiers an attack on its army and, therefore, a direct affront to its dignity. That is why it was ready to take all the possible paths to have him released, for it would not accept to be looked upon as the country that abandons its “boys” even if this costs a drastic change of policy towards groups it has since time immemorial, considered terrorist. What also impressed me, even though it was in a sad way, was the fact that Shalit was exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom are, according to Israeli authorities, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians. There would have never been a more explicit message regarding what an Israeli soldier is worth for his country.

Terrorism and Kebab

Not everybody knows an Egyptian movie by the name Terrorism and Kebab. It tells the story of an average citizen who, fed up with endless bureaucracy and feeling humiliated at his inability to obtain his basic rights as a citizen, seizes a government building and takes some of its employees hostage, thus immediately becoming a terrorist and creating a crisis that necessitates the intervention of security forces who first try negotiations then decide to use force. In one of the scenes, the interior minister holds a microphone and calls upon the hostages not to worry if they are killed while his forces storm the building, for they would become martyrs and their families would get proper compensation. In a scathing critique that the regime, by some miracle, overlooked at the time, the Interior Ministry, presumably in charge of protecting the people, is seen to have a totally a different set of priorities. The police are mainly concerned about its image in front of the public which, it believes, will be severely damaged if it agrees to hold negotiations with the terrorists they are expected to ruthlessly crush. That is why it would give precedence to saving face over saving human lives.

Egypt’s experience

The recent abduction of seven Egyptian officers in the Sinai Peninsula was bound to raise all kinds of questions about the value of the citizen in a regime that is quite similar to its predecessor as far as prioritizing prestige over people is concerned. The only difference this time is that the case involves two parties that do not seem to agree on the way the situation should be handled, even though they both share a conviction that the reputation of the institution is far more important than the life of the citizens. The presidency and the army might not have the same approach, with one opting for almost total inaction and the other threatening too much action, but both mainly aimed to preserve the status they allegedly hold amongst the Egyptian people or in front of the world, God knows what else they were trying to preserve!

While the president announces he is not to be blackmailed by the kidnappers, which gives the impression the he is not going to respond to their demands, he goes back to say that all options are open and expressed his keenness to protect the lives of both the culprits and the victims, which gives the totally opposite impression; that he is ready to negotiate. He then calls upon opposition factions to join him in a “national dialogue” to discuss ways to deal with the situation, which gives the impression that he is trying to give the impression that he is unable to figure out what to do.

All those impressions aside, the president took no actual steps towards solving the problem whether in favor of the kidnappers or the kidnapped, or both, or neither. Apart from the indifference he has displayed in dealing with Egyptian citizens who can lose their lives any minute and who actually pleaded with him in a video to save them, the president’s reaction raised question marks about his own role in the state of lawlessness that currently prevails in the Sinai where Jihadists are on their way to establishing a state within the state. Questions are being raised over his reluctance to engage in any kind of standoff that would portray militant groups in the peninsula as terrorists in order to avoid antagonizing his ultra-conservative Islamist supporters. In short, by neither negotiating nor taking firm action, the president is leaving the matter entirely to the kidnappers who can choose to kill the hostages or singlehandedly attempt to release their detained fellow-militants, or both. He is indirectly creating the ideal training camp for a thriving paramilitary. Where the safety of Egyptian citizens figure on his agenda and how much of a national disaster he sees in the abduction of police and army officers remain to be known or is, in fact, quite known!

The army is busy settling scores

The army, on the other hand, seems to be too busy settling scores and attempting to prove who the boss is in a country that is for the first time not only ruled by a non-military president, but also by a group that makes no secret of detesting each and every remnant of the former regime’s institutions. Sending officers and armored vehicles into the Sinai portends an escalation that would most likely be detrimental to the hostages without even succeeding in prevailing over the militants. The army is, therefore, embarking on such a quixotic adventure to restore its long-established, yet recently jeopardized, image as the guardian of sovereignty and the protector of the land and to underscore the contrast between its prompt decision to reclaim control over the Sinai and the lackluster response of the Egyptian president, who, together with the Muslim Brotherhood, has been engaged in constant attempts at sidelining military leaders and is even rumored to be gladly watching the generals trapping themselves in a rugged terrain, the nooks and crannies of which they are, unlike their target militants, quite unfamiliar with. Some regime loyalists went as far as hinting that in an attempt to flex its muscles and embarrass the president, the army did orchestrate or at least facilitate the abductions. Regardless of who is swallowing whose bait, it would be quite naïve to assume that the outcome would be in favor of the victims who are now turning into cannon fodder and whose safety has become of minimal significance even for the institutions to which they belong and which are busy tipping the scales in the balance of power.

They say that the degree of a state’s success is measured by the value it bestows on its citizens and the effort it exerts to preserve their lives and dignity. Success is also measured by the citizens’ confidence that the state will never let them down in situations where they require its assistance and/or protection. You don’t have to be taken hostage to decide where you stand as a citizen and/or have your life threatened to understand what kind of a state you pledge allegiance to.

‘Let them play,’ said Egypt’s president


“Let them play has become one of Egypt’s most quoted phrases after the revolution even though it received little attention at the time it was said, or so it seemed. “Let them play” was the extremely basic, yet shockingly revealing, response of the former president when told of the opposition’s intention to establish a parallel parliament to the one dominated, through flagrantly rigged elections, by the then ruling National Democratic Party. “Let them play” was in a nutshell the attitude of a dictatorship that mistakenly saw itself as invincible towards an opposition that it, mistakenly too, perceived as helpless. “Let them play” was the ultimate manifestation of a type of arrogance that blinded itself to every possible threat to the extent that it needed not clampdown on any of its sources and would rather have fun watching the “game” whose results were presumably pre-determined.

Turned out they were not playing after all and the president did not stay in power long enough to see how impossible it would have been for the nascent entity to challenge his authority. The parallel parliament did not actually topple the regime nor did the president’s phrase stir people into action on January 25, 2011, but the incident has ever since served as a classical example of the irony inherent in the reversal of roles that directly followed this showdown. For a very brief time, people started thinking of what a shadow government could do and how far it would be permitted to do it, but the eruption of the revolution rendered the matter totally out of context as hopes for a real government rendered a shadow one redundant.

It was only when the new regime proved beyond doubt that it is becoming a replica, a disfigured one for that matter, of the old regime that the issue of a shadow government was brought up once more. Abandoning all hope in any substantial change in the policies of the current government, the National Salvation Front, Egypt’s main opposition bloc, announced its intention to establish a parallel one in accordance with the initial aspirations of the revolution, none of which having materialized since the coming to power of the current president and the blatant exclusionist approach he and the Muslim Brotherhood have been adopting ever since.

Shadow government selection

The new government, expected to include 20 plus ministers, marks a significant departure from conventional awareness campaigns about democracy, citizenship, and power sharing as it moves to the practical level through offering the people an actual alternative to what they have, one through which political novices, which all Egyptians are, will be expected to get a glimpse of how a proper government is formed and on what basis its ministers are selected so that the end result would be an entity whose first and foremost priority is doing what is in the best interest of the country and its citizens rather than gathering as many members of the ruling clique as possible regardless of qualification, popularity, and patriotism.

Adding new portfolios, like human rights, Sinai affairs, and the Nile Basin to the shadow government underscores critical files that have been equally overlooked before and after the revolution as well as alerts the people to the inefficiency of a government that was supposed to right the wrongs of its predecessor.

The initiative is another chapter in the seemingly lengthy saga of peaceful resistance that had started a few years before the revolution, an extremely commendable one in fact. It remains problematic, though.

Besides offering a viable alternative, which is what a shadow government is generally for, the Egyptian version has set as its ultimate goal putting an end to the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule and this is exactly where the problem lies. A shadow government is supposed to monitor the performance of the actual government and offer solutions to problems it is unable to solve while exercising pressure on the various ministries to redress policies seen as damaging to public welfare. Yet being always established in democracies, toppling the regime is never on a shadow government’s agenda, simply because it does not question the legitimacy of this regime in the first place, which is not the case with the Egyptian opposition, currently collecting signatures to oust the president. A shadow government is an “opposition” and not a “revolutionary” group. The two terms are, however, used interchangeably in Egypt and the confusion is quite understandable for the same groups that form political parties are also resistance movements that organize street rallies against the government and their leaders are politicians-cum-freedom fighters. This overlap is here to stay as long as the status quo persists and as long as the current situation is too blurred to have clear cut demarcations applied to it.

It is, thus, hard to call this initiative a shadow government and even harder to call it by any other name. While finding an adequate definition might seem to mirror a state of uncertainty, which is the case with everything in Egypt at the moment, some certainties are powerfully starting to emerge. It is certain that the shadow government announcement offers another proof of the incessant pressure to which the government is being subjected as it stands accused of hijacking the revolution and betraying the Egyptian people and as disgruntlement is reaching its peak both in the street and among political circles.

There has so far been no official response to the announcement and even though the “let them play” discourse is undoubtedly the current government’s motto as well, neither the president not any member of his group seems willing to say it out loud. They have possibly come to realize that “playing” is not that harmless after all and that its outcome can be fatal for whoever belittles the “players,” which in itself indicates that we are not as fully back to square one as some pessimists would have us believe and that at least we have come to the point when the ruler is becoming aware of the sweeping power of those he had in the past only perceived as “subjects.”

As for the naming ordeal, it could be simply called an “Egyptian shadow government,” for Egyptians have become amazingly flexible when it comes to twisting, tweaking, and reversing all universally acknowledged concepts to create some previously unheard of structure that would suit an eternally bizarre situation that is not apparently not likely to come to an end any time soon!

Lobbying for democracy in Egypt


There is not one European or North American city I visited where I did not see individuals or groups collecting signatures for some cause or another. The activists involved would be lobbying for or against all sorts of things, but as far as I can recall it was usually about the cutting of trees, the rescuing of endangered species, or the renovation of some local park, a “make love not war” kind of cause that you only hear of in beauty pageants.

This is not in any way an attempt to belittle such causes or downplay the effort exerted by their initiators, but rather to underscore the fact that they are far from being make-or-break issues that would have an impact on, for example, the future of the state or the structure of the government. This is simply because such matters are determined in a totally different manner that involves ballot boxes, polling stations, vote counting, and all that jargon we have recently learnt as we try to decipher the mystery by the name of “democracy.”

In other words, those people leave national issues to their representatives, whom they have already elected, and focus on more local ones which they believe they can handle in a variety of ways including exercising pressure on the legislature to draft new laws that they perceive as solutions to problems facing the community. That is why in a democracy you don’t see citizens signing a petition to change the head of state or dissolve the parliament. True, there had for example been calls in the United States for impeaching George W. Bush when he went to war in Iraq, but such a demand had apparently no legal or constitutional grounds, so it never materialized.

The case in Egypt

In Egypt, the signature collection ritual takes a very different shape. Let me first point out that the entire practice had not actually existed in the country until 2010 when Mohamed el-Baradei founded the National Assembly for Change, which started collecting signatures on a document that listed a series of demands seen as a step towards democratic reform. The initiative was quite striking at the time, not only because it heralded an era marked by people’s realization that it was only through them that change could happen and that shedding off their fear of openly opposing the repressive regime was the only means of doing so, but also because it underlined absolute lack of trust in the so-called representatives who belonged to the ruling party and who everyone knew came to power through rigged elections. Scoffed at by the regime and considered too idealistic to be true by the opposition, the initiative yielded stupendous results with one million signatures in less than seven months and the stage was set for a revolution that toppled the regime altogether.

Technically speaking, the signatures neither modified the articles of the constitution stated in the assembly’s statement nor did they determine the path Egypt was to take following the revolution, but they did change the face of the political scene in the country and effected an outstanding transformation in the balance of power between ruler and subjects with the second no longer blindly subservient to the first and the first no longer capable of counting on the second’s perpetual submission. It was, however, too early for the new culture to be rechanneled towards problems pertaining to trees, animals, and public parks.

A peculiar situation

The situation this time is as different as it is peculiar, for the new campaign, launched by one of Egypt’s leading opposition blocs, the Egyptian Movement for Change, is now collecting signatures to topple a “democratically” elected president and hold early “democratic” elections.

As absurd as the idea might seem to be, it does shed light on a very significant aspect of this phase of Egypt’s history and possibly that of several countries in transition; the gap between procedural and actual democracy, between elections as a timed process that ends with the counting of votes and as an ongoing system that brings the elected official to task with the slightest sign of mismanagement, between voting as a bargain in which religious, tribal, or financial factors take precedence and as a mature choice determined by objective assessment of the political situation and comprehensive awareness of national interests. This campaign, therefore, aims at revisiting the concept of legitimacy so that it is no longer solely contingent upon election results, but is rather measured by post-election performance. Therefore, the more the signatures, the stronger the proof of the president’s failure in living up to the expectations of the people he was supposed to serve and who in turn should reserve the right to take back the privilege they had once bestowed upon him. It also pinpoints the fact that democracy can and does breed dictators and that is why, in a country where there is no actual separation of powers and where state institutions are in the process of being controlled by the president’s clique, it becomes time for the people to draw the line and teach the tyrant in the making that power is not a given.

There is little chance that those signatures, even if they reach the targeted 15 million, will actually strip the president of his legitimacy because, unless he chooses to step down, there is no law or article in the constitution that acknowledges the role of signatures in determining the duration of the president’s term in office. It remains, therefore, as symbolic an initiative as its predecessor insofar as it reflects the meager, if any, change in the Egyptian people’s perception of their government and how elections do little to embellish the image of a head of state if his performance remains lousy. The act of signature collection also stresses that the new culture of popular lobbying is here to stay. The symbolic nature of the new campaign does not, however, make it any less influential. Regimes, thus, better beware that symbolic actions are not really that symbolic, exactly like signatures are not really ink on paper and like forests can redirect the course of motorways or halt the construction of entire housing projects!