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Egypt: Parliament Discusses New Bills Criminalizing Atheism and Homosexuality

(Jan. 26, 2018) On December 24, 2017, the Committee on Religion of Egypt’s Council of Representatives discussed a bill that would make atheism a crime punishable under the Egyptian Penal Code. (Egyptian Parliament Discusses Plans to Criminalise Atheism, EGYPTIAN STREETS (Dec. 24, 2017).) Previously on November 9, 2017, an Egyptian lawmaker proposed a bill criminalizing homosexuality that gained the support of more than 60 members of Parliament. (Egyptian Lawmaker to Propose Anti-gay Bill as Part of Crackdown, Reuters, Nov. 9, 2017; Bethan McKernan, Egypt LGBT Crackdown: 16 Men Jailed for Three Years on ‘Debauchery’ Charges, INDEPENDENT (Nov. 29, 2018).)

Bill to Criminalize Atheism

One of the purposes of the December bill is to curb what Amro Harmoush, the Committee head and a sponsor of the bill, calls the “phenomenon” of atheism in Egyptian society, which he says must be “criminalized and categorized as contempt of religion because atheists have no doctrine and try to insult the Abrahamic religions.” (Id., Cristina Maza, Egypt Could Make Atheism Illegal amid Harsh Crackdown on Nonbelievers, NEWSWEEK (Jan. 5, 2018).) The concept of “contempt for religions” (izdira’ al-adyan) is contained in article 98(f) of the Penal Code. This article provides for “imprisonment for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or paying a fine of at least 500 Egyptian pounds [about US$28]” on “whoever makes use of religion in propagating, either by words, in writing, or by any other means, extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a divine religion or a related sect, or damaging national unity.” (Law 95 of 2003 Amending Penal Code of 1937, AL-JARIDAH AL-RASMIYYAH [OFFICIAL GAZETTE], vol. 25, 19 June 2003.) Harmoush alleges that the bill will prevent youth from falling into atheism. (Egyptian Parliament Discusses Plans to Criminalise Atheism, supra.)

The bill can be seen as complementing a national plan to combat atheism that was jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the Ministry of Religious Endowments in 2014. (Ishak Ibrahim, Egypt’s National Plan to Fight Atheism, TAHRIR INSTITUTE FOR MIDDLE EAST POLICY (Aug. 8, 2014).)

Government Crackdown on Atheists

On December 21, 2017, the Egyptian police arrested 29-year-old Ibrahim Khalil on the grounds of being an atheist. The prosecution office charged him with violating article 98(f) of the Penal Code for “defaming religion” and promoting atheism on his Facebook page. (Shahira Amin, Egypt’s Parliament in Bid to Ban Atheism, AL-MONITOR (Dec. 29, 2017).) According to a statement of an Egyptian atheist made to one of the news outlets, “[a]theists in Egypt are afraid to publicly come out as such. If you proclaim yourself a nonbeliever, you literally open the gates of hell.” (Id.) Although atheism is currently not criminalized under the Egyptian Penal Code, the Egyptian authorities have targeted a number of atheists over the past years and charged them with contempt for religion. According to news reports, between 2011 and 2013, 42 defendants were found guilty of contempt for religion. (Emir Nadr, Student in Hiding After Prison Sentence for Atheism, DAILY NEWS EGYPT (Mar. 14, 2015).)

Bill to Criminalize Homosexuality and Government Crackdown on LGBT Community

The November bill debated among members of the Egyptian Parliament to criminalize homosexuality in Egypt came after a concert that took place in September 2017 where the rainbow gay pride flag was raised by some individuals attending the concert. (Egypt LGBT Crackdown: 16 Men Jailed for Three Years on ‘Debauchery’ Charges, supra.)

In recent months, the Egyptian authorities have targeted individual members of the Egyptian LGBT community for arrest. In October alone, more than 65 individuals, mostly gay men, were arrested, and at least 20 of them have received prison sentences ranging from six months to six years. (Why Is the Egyptian Government So Afraid of a Rainbow Flag?, NY TIMES (Oct. 26, 2017); see also Constance Johnson, United Nations: Rights Office Concerned About Arrests of LGBT Individuals, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Oct. 31, 2017).) In January 2018, Egyptian police arrested 10 people of the LGBT community in Alexandria, north of Cairo, after neighbors reported to the authorities that they seemed “different.” The recent arrests bring the number of people detained by the authorities since September 2017 for homosexuality to eighty-five. According to news reports, in 2016, 300 people were arrested for the same reason. (Kashmira Gander, Egypt Anti-gay Raids: LGBT Rights Activists Fear Widespread Brutal Crackdown, INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS TIMES (Jan. 24, 2018).) Even though homosexuality is not a crime under the Penal Code, the Egyptian authorities have charged individuals accused of being gay under provisions of a 60-year-old debauchery law used to combat prostitution. (Id.; Law No. 10 of 1961, on the Combating of Prostitution, issued 8 Mar. 1961, Refworld website.)