A barometer for freedom and equality in Egypt

The persecution of minorities in an Islamic society is truly a barometer of the lack of freedom and equality that prevails there

An Egyptian man walks through a burning Baha'i village
Wahied Wahdat-Hagh
On 4 September 2012 11:12

The problems of the Egyptian Baha'is are growing

As the Baha'is refused to deny their religion, they were no longer entitled to an identity card. This had tragic consequences. Baha'i children had no birth certificates and therefore could not attend school. They were even denied vaccinations.

Baha'i youth and adults also did not have identity cards, which meant that they could not work, could not study and could seek care in public hospitals. They also could not apply for a driving license. They were even not entitled to a death certificate if a family member passed away.

Because of this, they lost their right to inheritances. The possession of Baha'i money, goods and property thus passed into state ownership. The persecution of the Baha’is was certainly a comfortable situation for those in power.

In April 2006 Egyptian Baha'is were given the right to a religious identity, which could be officially registered in state documents. However, as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Azhar University protested against the government decision, it was reversed in December 2006.

In 2007, several human rights organisations denounced the situation in Egypt, as well as the U.S. government in an annual report on religious freedom. So far this has had little actual effect. It’s not only the Baha’is who are negatively affected by religious prejudice, but also Copts and newly converted Christians.

It was only in August 2009 that the Baha'is were granted the right leave blank the box for religious affiliation on their identity cards. This was a step forward as they could now apply for passports, even if their religion was not registered and was only denoted with a hyphen.

With the “Arab Spring”, the situation of the Baha'is has not improved. In fact, the opposite is true. The “Arab Spring” that began in Tunisia and toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak does not seem to be bringing democracy and human rights to the region. Especially considering the bloody chaos and violence in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and also Egypt, it can be surmised that positive developments in the Arab world are unlikely in the medium-term.

The situation of members of the Baha'i religion in Egypt is indeed a litmus test for the overall development of an Islamic society such as Egypt’s.

As Nassim Kourosh notes, the positive steps forward in 2009 regarding the treatment of Baha'is are currently being rolled back. In the “Arab Spring” that is rapidly turning into a winter, the Baha’is are still not being treated equally alongside members of the other three religions. As far as the “Arab Spring” is concerned, civil rights are non-existent.

Attacks and arson

If the State acts as an ideological arsonist, one need not wonder whether the citizens of such a state will become arsonists themselves. In Egypt, an increase in attacks on the Baha'is has been recorded and in some villages, their houses have been attacked and set on fire.

The Muslim Brotherhood, who got the most votes in the general election, will not take it upon themselves to improve the situation of the Baha'is. Neither the Brotherhood nor the Salafists have any inclination to change Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution, according to which Islam is the state religion and Islamic law is to the fore.

The Salafist Abdel Moneim al-Shahat demonises the Baha'is and describes them as a “threat to national security”. This Salafist even referred to a fatwa issued by Al-Azhar University, according to which the Baha’i should be prosecuted for “high treason”.

It is very likely that the situation will deteriorate for the Egyptian Baha'is. The persecution of minorities in an Islamic society is truly a barometer of the lack of freedom and equality that prevails there.

Wahied Wahdat-Hagh is a Senior Fellow with the European Foundation for Democracy in Brussels.

Translation: Niall Judge

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