Is public breaking of Ramadan fast illegal in Egypt?

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.”

With Sisi in power, will Egypt hold sway over the Gaza flare-up?

Following two major uprisings and the regime changes they brought about, along with the death of late intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s stance on Gaza has been shrouded in increasing uncertainty.

The remarkable policy discrepancies between former President Hosni Mubarak and former Islamist President Mohammad Mursi has left the third regime to follow, that of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in a precarious position and have given rise to speculations as to which path the newly-elected president is more likely to take amid the current Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Another important factor that has made the Gaza issue more complicated now is the absence of one of the most important players, if not the most important— Omar Suleiman, who for years had been in charge of this file and is still seen to have been the most familiar with its minutest of classified details and the most able to handle its ordeals.

“Sisi reassured [Palestinian President Mahmoud] Abbas that Egypt is keen on protecting the Palestinian people in Gaza and stopping the aggression and will exert its utmost effort to reach a ceasefire as soon as possible,” reported the Palestinian news agency WAFA in reference to a phone call that took place on July 8 between the presidents and in which the Abbas asked for Sisi’s mediation to stop Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip after updating him on the latest escalations in the offensive known as Operation Protective Edge.

A statement with the same content was issued by President Abbas’s office. According to the statement and press reports on the call, Abbas praised Egypt’s “historic role” in defending the right of the Palestinian people.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri had also made an earlier statement about Egypt’s involvement in the mediation of a truce even though he gave no details. “There are contacts between Hamas and Egyptian officials concerning the Israeli escalation in the Gaza Strip,” he said. “We clarified and reiterated our position that we are not interested in escalation and the occupation is responsible.” Several Israeli press reports read Abu Zuhri’s statement as an expression of Hamas’s inclination towards a truce.

“Hamas has communicated to Cairo its desire to end the current round of fighting in the south,” said the Jerusalem Post. The Egyptian presidency also issued a statement stressing that Cairo is holding intensive negotiations with all parties involved “in order to spare the Palestinian people the grave consequences of Israeli military operations and to hold Israel, as an occupying power, responsible for the safety of Palestinian civilians in accordance with the Geneva Convention and international law.” This made speculations rife about when and if an Egyptian-brokered truce would materialize and how far such mediation would determine the new regime’s approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Testing the waters

The assault on Gaza is seen by many experts as Israel’s way of testing the waters with Egypt’s new regime as far as its policies on Israel are concerned.

For Mokhtar Ghobashi, deputy director of the Arab Center for Political and Strategic Studies, the reaction of Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to the aggression on Gaza would determine Cairo’s take on the Palestinian cause. “Egypt’s foreign policies are not clear yet,” he said in a press interview. “Will Egypt mediate between both parties and broker a cease fire? Or will it declare its absolute support for the Palestinian cause and embark on a set of measures that would put pressure on Israel to stop the attacks?” Ghobashi added that immediate intervention to end the aggression is the only way to show that Egypt is not willing to give up its regional role, yet noted that the political and economic conditions in the country are likely to play a major role in determining the regime’s next step.

In his article “Sisi faces first test with Israel,” journalist Mohamed al-Beheiri argued that the Israeli aggression on Gaza placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on top of the president’s foreign policy agenda. “In fact, the Palestinian people are looking to him for rescue, especially that he said in his inauguration speech that the Palestinian cause would be one of his topmost priorities,” he wrote. The situation, however, is more complicated than it seems, Beheiri adds, for while it is in Egypt’s best interest to maintain calm on its eastern borders, its current relationship with Hamas, which grew sour since the group declared its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, would make mediation a tough task. “Add to this the already unstable situation on the domestic level and the economy that is struggling to stay afloat,” he explained. “Not to mention the general regional chaos whether in Syria or Iraq.”

Leaning towards Israel

What complicates the matter even more is a series of reports that imply Egypt’s inclination towards cooperating with Israel. Several Egyptian media outlets have been circulating news of the visit Egyptian Intelligence Chief Mohammad al-Tohami paid to Israel a few days before the start of the attacks. Emphasis was especially laid on reports by the national Israeli radio about meetings Tohami held with Israeli military and security officials over “the latest escalation between Israel and Hamas.”

Israel National Radio also reported that mediation efforts have been reduced to the minimum on the part of Egyptian authorities owing to Tohami’s failure to reach an agreement with Hamas “because Hamas did not respond to Egypt’s request that it stops the violence,” according to some reports, or “because Egypt rejected a list of demands Hamas presented in return for stopping the firing of rockets.” According to the Israeli military intelligence website DEBKAfile, approving Hamas’s demands would come at a high cost for Egypt. “Egypt would have to retract all the military measures it had taken in the past half year along the border with Gaza and which basically aimed at undermining Hamas’s military power,” the website reported.

The reduction of mediation efforts is, however, seen by many as a euphemism for failure. In his article, “Aggression on Gaza: Israel’s and Hamas’s bets on Sisi,” Islam Abul Ezz argues that the situation is different this time owing to the extreme intransigence of both parties. “Israeli intransigence stems from its need to vent its anger at the abduction of settlers and this will only be done through a strike on Gaza while Hamas’s intransigence stems from losing a major ally after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood and the financial damage it sustained following the closure of cross-border tunnels which made it keen on proving it at least retains military prowess,” he wrote.

Sisi and Hamas

Sisi’s complicated relationship with Hamas since the June 30 protests that toppled Islamist President Mohammad Mursi, Abul Ezz added, might have also contributed to the failure of the talks. “It is true that the ice started breaking after Sisi’s election and it seemed Hamas was willing to turn a new leaf, yet Sisi still keeps Cairo’s contact with Hamas through the General Intelligence Agency as the regime has done for years,” he explained, in reference to the handling of the Gaza file by Mubarak’s late intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. On the other hand, Abul Ezz noted, Israel had higher expectations as far as Sisi’s stance on Hamas is concerned.

“Israel expected the deteriorating relation between Hamas and Sisi to be in its best interest and believed that Sisi would want to get back at Hamas for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, but turns out Sisi has different priorities which focus more on security in the Sinai Peninsula than on the situation in Gaza,” he explained. According to Abul Ezz, the Egyptian regime is currently in a middle position between that of Mubarak, which sided more with Israel and closed the crossings to humanitarian aid, and that of Mursi, which allied with Hamas and made a media show of it, and it remains to be seen how this position will translation into actual action, if any, to get over this failure.

Egypt and Israel

Even though Sisi followed in Mubarak’s footsteps when he sent his intelligence chief to negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, the new man has so far been unable to match the success of his predecessor Omar Suleiman, who served in that position for 18 years.

Suleiman, known as Mubarak’s “black box,” was involved in several agreements between Israel and Hamas, the first known of which was the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in the famous 2011 prisoner swap deal in addition to several ceasefire agreements. Suleiman was generally regarded as a favorite of Israel especially after Wikileaks released cables that showed the Israeli government sees him as an alternative to Mubarak: “[Israeli Ministry of Defense Arab Affairs Advisor David] Hacham was full of praise for Soliman, however, and noted that a ‘hot line’ set up between the MOD and Egyptian General Intelligence Service is now in daily use.”

Hacham said he sometimes speaks to Soliman’s deputy Mohammad Ibrahim several times a day. Hacham noted that the Israelis believe Soliman is likely to serve as at least an interim President if Mubarak dies or is incapacitated. (Note: We defer to Embassy Cairo for analysis of Egyptian succession scenarios, but there is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of Omar Soliman).

In fact, former Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezaer said after Suleiman death that “he was the one who served Israel best.” Senior Hamas member Moussa Abu Marzouk argued that despite his close relationship with Israel, Suleiman was not out to destroy Hamas as he was commonly thought to. “When Hamas won the elections in 2006 and Gaza seceded from the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. and Israel wanted to attack Gaza and kill the leaders of Hamas but it was Suleiman who convinced them it was unwise to do so,” he said in a TV interview following Suleiman death.

“He warned Americans that Gaza is a gunpowder barrel that was bound to explode in their face and the face of their interests in the entire region.” Abu Marzouk also praised the role Suleiman played in ending the 2008 Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip and the pressure he put on Israel to lift the blockade. “It was his continuous lobbying that made Israelis sometimes allow the passing of humanitarian aid through the crossings,” he added. “He also used the natural gas Egypt exported to Israel as a bargaining chip.”

Egypt does not seem to have given up on the mediation process, though, and chances of a renewal of negotiations are still there. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he called Sisi recently and stressed that the latter assured him that Cairo is working on brokering a ceasefire. Cairo’s role is, obviously, not over yet. The questions is, will Sisi keep his “around the corner” promise, as activists call it, in reference to his pre-election pledge to intervene in case the security of any Arab country is threatened?

“If the security of any Arab country is threatened and we are called upon for him, we will respond immediately. It’s around the corner,” he once said. It’s crunch time and we will just have to wait and see.

Protesting Egypt’s protest law: Activist detentions reignite debate

The detention on June 21 of Egyptian activist and human rights lawyer Yara Sallam, along with 22 other demonstrators, has reignited debate over the controversial protest law that was issued in Nov. 2013.

Sallam, in charge of the Transitional Justice Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was referred to court for protesting without prior permission from the Interior Ministry, vandalizing public property, terrorizing citizens and destabilizing security. The trial, scheduled for Sept. 13, may see Sallam and the other defendants face the same fate as others who have violated the protest law.

Blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah – whose sister Sanaa was among the protesters arrested with Sallam – was sentenced to 15 years in jail. Ahmed Maher, cofounder of the April 6 Youth Movement, was sentenced to three years. Revolutionary Socialists member Mahinour al-Masry was sentenced to two years. These sentences are seen by activists as part of the government’s attempt to stifle dissent, while the state holds firmly to its right to maintain law and order.

The EIPR says all the measures taken against Sallam and her fellow detainees are punitive rather than legal. “We believe that they were arrested and are now being tried for practicing their right to freedom of expression,” it said in a statement. “We are concerned that Sallam in particular was arrested because of her work in human rights since her cousin, who was arrested with her in the same protest, was released on the same day and faced no charges.”

The statement contested the legality of the procedures taken against the defendants, especially the court’s decision to keep them detained until the trial. “The lawyer demanded that the defendants be released but the judge denied their request, which we see as a punishment for them since there is nothing in the case that necessitates detaining them for more than three months.”

The EIPR questioned the validity of the charges. “The defendants are, for example, charged with attacking a police car at a time when they had already been arrested and no weapons were found with them to prove they engaged in any acts of vandalism or violence. Add to that that the only witnesses are police officers.”

The statement also accused the authorities of depriving the defendants of their basic rights, and of hindering any assistance they could get. “The defendants were not allowed to contact their families and lawyers when they were arrested and the venue of the court session was changed without notifying the lawyers. The lawyers also faced huge challenges as they tried to gain access to the case files and to information on the whereabouts of their clients.”

The statement concluded: “We believe that the way the case is being handled puts into question the fairness of the trial.” These sentiments were echoed by Amnesty International in the case of Masry: “There is absolutely no evidence” that she “was involved in violence against the security forces. Her case is just the latest in a series of examples of the Egyptian authorities’ systematic attempts to stifle dissent, including by using the repressive protest law enacted last November.”

Masry “is a prisoner of conscience, convicted and sentenced solely for protesting peacefully,” Amnesty said. “The protest law allows the Egyptian authorities to ban demonstrations at their discretion and gives security forces a free rein to use force, including firearms, against peaceful protesters – a blatant violation of international law. It sends a clear message that there is no space in Egypt today for activism that is not directly sanctioned by the state.”

Several opposition parties issued a joint statement against the protest law days before the arrest of Sallam and her fellow activists. “In the context of the repeated court sentences, that come out almost daily… the undersigned parties cannot but renew their firm condemnation of the infamous and unconstitutional protest law, especially when it targets peaceful demonstrators who were seeking to express their opinions freely, which is a basic right in a developing democracy.” The statement objected to the authorities treating peaceful protestors as they do armed or violent groups, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Support for the protest law

However, according to General Ahmed Gad Mansour, deputy interior minister and director of the Egyptian Police Academy: “Absolute freedom equals absolute chaos. There is a huge difference between protesting and practicing freedom in accordance with the law on one hand, and committing violations on the other hand. In fact, protest laws in many Western countries are much stricter than the one we have now in Egypt.”

Mahmoud Kubeish, professor of law and former dean of the School of Law at Cairo University, said. “We will never reach stability if people keep protesting without permits. Revoking the protest law is a crime and anyone who supports that is a party to incitement of chaos whether intentionally or unintentionally.”

Professor of international law Ayman Salama says the state has the right to take all necessary measures to maintain stability when national security is at risk, including passing laws in the absence of a parliament until one is elected.

“These laws could even violate the constitution or other existing laws, but become urgent at a certain time to preserve the existence of the state against a serious threat,” he said, referring to the Brotherhood, which “extracted itself from the national fabric and alienated all Egyptians.”

Salama slammed human rights groups and activists for objecting to the protest law while not reading its counterparts in other parts of the world. “In fact, international law does not recognize the right to protest, but only the right to peaceful assembly, which happens to be the means of protesting in other countries. The case is different in Egypt, where Molotov cocktails become the means of protesting.”

Lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali filed a lawsuit against the protest law, citing its violation of the constitutional right to peaceful protest. According to journalist Khaled Dawoud, the fact that the Administrative Court referred the case to the Supreme Constitutional Court means the argument against the law is valid, and gives newly-elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a way out.

“If the SCC finds the law unconstitutional, this will be a face-saving solution allowing Sisi to amend the law, while saying he respects the judiciary and did not simply bow to pressure from the opposition,” Dawoud said.