The storming and closure of three cafes in Alexandria, the fining of their owners, and the arrest of some of their customers for publicly breaking the Ramadan fast have stirred a wave of legal, religious and ethical debates across Egypt. The controversy was not just triggered by the action itself, but also by the official response to the criticisms levelled at it.
Ibrahim al-Naggar, head of the Investigations Bureau in the district of Al-Dekhila – where the incidents took place – defended the clampdown. “Opening cafes and breaking the fast in public during the day in Ramadan is a legal offense and we are in charge of applying the law,” he said in a statement.
Al-Dekhila, he added, is home to large numbers of Christians and ultra-conservative Muslims, which makes daytime eating and drinking during Ramadan “likely to cause tension among the residents and even trigger sectarian strife.”
According to Naggar, the opening of the cafes was already a nuisance to the residents. “We received several complaints from people living in the neighborhood that those cafes are open during fasting time.”
He denied that police officers damaged the cafes or assaulted any customers, as was reported by several media outlets. He also insisted that the targeting of cafes had no sectarian basis. “We apply the law on everyone without any discrimination,” he said.
The Popular Front against the Brotherhoodization of Egypt was among the first groups to respond to the incidents, seeing it as proof of the remaining influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Despite the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood regime, groups that assume the role of moral police still infiltrate the Interior Ministry and impose their own laws,” the front said in a statement. “We demand an immediate and firm response from the Interior Ministry before this phenomenon spreads to the rest of Egypt or did the ministry lose control of those junior cops who are forming separate forces?”
The Maspero Youth Union, which confirmed media reports that the cafes were destroyed by security forces, said the clampdown was unprovoked and unjustified. “The cafes had curtains in respect for fasting passersby,” the union said in a statement.
It expressed concern about the future of personal freedoms if similar incidents take place. “Where is the civilian state mentioned in the constitution? What about citizens’ right to personal freedom?”
In his article “The Interior Ministry penalizes fast-breakers,” Mohamed Salmawi sarcastically expressed his indignation at the clampdown. “I was exalted to see the Interior Ministry no longer paying attention to terrorists who threaten our lives and focusing, instead, on others who are far more dangerous: those who publicly break the Ramadan fast,” he wrote.
“I was very happy to see security forces supposedly in charge of maintaining law and order turn into religious police,” he added. Salmawi accused the ministry of promoting an extremist version of Islam. He quoted Salafist preacher Adel al-Sayed in his praise of the clampdown on the cafes: “He said that the police did the right thing because they are promoting virtue and prohibiting vice.”
Salmawi called on the ministry to issue an official statement on the Alexandria incident, and similar ones in other cities, to make its stance clear. “We want to know if these illegal actions represent the ministry’s official policy now, because if they don’t then an immediate investigation should be opened to penalize those policemen who are stirring away from the main duty of the police, which is protecting citizens from outlaws including those groups that pose as religious police.”
Dar al-Iftaa, the body in charge of issuing religious edicts in Egypt, said breaking the fast in public is a sin, and “is not personal freedom. It is a violation of the sanctity of Islamic practices.”
Its statement said it is also improper to break the fast publicly while the majority is fasting. “If non-Muslims make sure they don’t hurt Muslims’ feelings by eating and drinking while they are fasting then this is the least non-fasting Muslims can do.”
Muslims who make it known that they are not fasting, the statement said, are committing two sins: the sin of not fasting, and the sin of indifference to the holiness of the practice. The statement called on the government to “take the necessary measures to ban public breaking of the fast in the streets and all public places.”
Sheikh Mohamed Abdullah Nasr, coordinator of the Azhar Scholars for a Civilian State Front, said there is no proof in the Quran or the Sunnah – the prophet’s teachings – of the presence of an entity that penalized people who did not fast during Ramadan. “The prophet himself said Muslims fast for God so only God can penalize those who don’t,” he said. “The prophet never even scolded those who did not fast.”
Nasr said the clampdown on cafes is bound to give rise to a society of hypocritical Muslims “who will comply with God’s orders for fear of the government rather than for fear of God.”
Legal experts confirmed that there is no law prohibiting daytime eating or drinking in public during Ramadan. Judge Farid Nasr, head of the Giza Criminal Court in Cairo, said breaking the fast in public could be seen as a religious crime, but definitely not a legal one.
“This means that only God can punish those who do not fast, but legally speaking there is no law that prevents people from eating and drinking in public during fasting time, especially that the constitution grants people the right to freedom of faith,” he said.
Judge Ahmed Shoeib said the clampdown cannot be justified under the offense of inciting debauchery, as some police officers suggested. “Inciting debauchery is related to sexual crimes, and cannot be applied to not fasting during Ramadan,” he said.
“Plus it is impossible to punish people who do not fast in a country that also includes Christians, Bahaais and atheists. How can police officers know people’s religious affiliations when arresting them?”
Shoeib said closing cafes is only legal if ordered by the governor, which was not the case in the Alexandria clampdown. “In this case, the closure becomes an administrative decision since the governor has the right to regulate the working hours of stores and cafes.”
Nour Farahat, constitutional expert and professor of the philosophy of law, said the clampdown constitutes a flagrant violation of the constitution. “This kind of action adopts the principle that faith is the source of security and not legitimacy,” he wrote on his Facebook account. “This is the same logic adopted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.”
To bridge the gap between what is considered a religious crime and a legal offense, Mohamed Raafat Othman, a member of the Center for Islamic Research at Al-Azhar, called for new legislation that would punish those who break the Ramadan fast in public under the Islamic principle of “tazir.”
This denotes punishments for crimes that do not have a fixed punishment in Islamic law, and which are to be decided by a judge or, in the modern context, the government or parliament.
“Not fasting in Ramadan is a crime in itself but doing that in public makes it worse because it no longer stops at the offenders, but extends to people around them,” he said in a statement. “First, they are tempting others to follow suit. Second, they are hurting the feelings of fasting Muslims.”