Throughout the upheaval of political change in Egypt over the course of the past years, a particular tendency has remained consistent in the Egyptian media: violent intolerance toward religious minorities that do not conform to a notion of “authentic” Egyptian identity. Media presentations featuring these religious minorities most often cast them either as enemies of the state or as suffering from pathological illness. These presentations and the tolerance of such violent speech on the part of the state must be understood as politically, not necessarily religiously, motivated, where “authentic identities” are being shaped and articulated more by politics than by any cultural or historical precedence. For example, the rise of the Nour Party could be understood in this context: although the party espouses a minority Salafist ideology that does not seem to align with the “traditional” Sunni Muslim value system embraced by official discourse, this has not caused problems for the party. Rather, their willingness to conform politically has afforded them a protected position close to state leadership.
Other minorities who may not have the political volition or influence to establish their political conformity have thus borne the brunt of a campaign of moralism. President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi himself has declared, since the outset of his presidency, his intention to defend “Egyptian” morals and values; most recently, in a visit to Kuwait, he declared his intention to defend Islamic orthodoxy as a “top priority.” Media discourse, adopted by a variety of actors in a variety of outlets, mirrors that of the state in its aspirations to moral authenticity, and the convergence of media and state in this climate has devastating implications for religious minorities—be they Shi’a, Baha’i, atheists, or otherwise. Designated as “criminals” or “mad men,” the media has created a moral panic around these groups, and religious minorities have faced actual violence as a result of increased media visibility. And, as the Egyptian state faces crisis, this moral panic is intensifying, diverting attention and blame to those who do not conform.
Articulating a Moral Identity
The media’s presentation of what is and is not appropriate in terms of morality undoubtedly informs public action as part of a campaign of “authenticity.” It is evident that, particularly through television interviews, the media has created a public space where notions of an authentic Egyptian identity are formed and articulated. One way this is achieved is through the negative portrayal of certain religious minorities, which are framed as fundamentally threatening to the cohesion of this national identity. These examples, which date back as early as the Mubarak era, demonstrate the ways in which these ostensible threats are presented as actual, pervasive, and pathological:
In a March 2009 talk show panel featuring Baha’i activist Dr. Bassma Moussa and journalist Gamal Abdel Rehim, Abdel Rehim condemned Baha’is as “apostates” and “infidels,” and declared that they should be punished by death for their crimes. The 2009 panel took place during the show Al-Haqiqa, aired on the ostensibly liberal-leaning Egyptian satellite network Dream TV. After the 2009 Al-Haqiqa interview, Baha’is from one of the panelist’s hometowns in Sohag were violently attacked over a period of four days: their homes were burned and, when police arrived, they were asked to relocate. State authorities never prosecuted those responsible. The incident shows the extent to which the media presentation of threat translated into act—Moussa did not merely represent the threat of erosion of religious identity; her community was actually brutally attacked.
A November 2013 interview on al-Mehwar TV targeted atheist Ismail Mohamed. A caller to the show praised the interviewer, suggesting Mohamed was acting in the interest of a “fifth column” intended to corrupt Egyptian values. This suggestion of a fifth column reflects a broader panic over the threat of terrorism in Egypt; in particular, the caller’s statements link atheism to a greater conspiracy that, at times, includes the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States, Turkey, Qatar, Zionists, and others. The “fifth column” represents a shadowy and pervasive network of actors that threaten to disrupt stability at any moment. Mohamed later describes in a Youtube video how he and his friends were violently attacked as a result of this interview: on April 28, 2014, a group of men recognized Mohamed as an atheist and assaulted him and his friends, leaving one of them to spend several days in the hospital recovering.
Most often, particularly with atheism, non-conformity is framed as pathological; this particular type of panic can be most frightening as it carries with it notions of contagion. In April 2014, Ayman Ramzy appeared on Al Nahar TV. Ramzy identified himself as a humanist, and he appeared on the show along with an Azhar scholar and an Orthodox priest. After listening to Ramzy explain his religious convictions from the green room, the Azhar scholar explained that Ramzy was an obsessive psychopath who belonged in an asylum. Ramzy, an employee at the Ministry of Education, was later referred to the state prosecutor for fears that he was spreading beliefs counter to the values of Egyptian society.
State and Media: One Hand
While freedom of the press and freedom of expression are protected under Egyptian and international law, there are explicit parameters to differentiate between freely-expressed opinions (including dissent and antagonism) and hate speech. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party, unequivocally prohibits “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” However, despite the clear evidence of calls for violence against religious minorities, no person has been held to account for these. In fact, although Moussa filed a report against Abdel Rehim for his incendiary remarks in the 2009 interview, Abdel Rehim was never convicted. Rather, he was appointed by the Shura Council in 2012 to the position of Editor-in-Chief of state-run newspaper Al-Gomhoreya.
Abdel Rehim’s appointment to a leadership position at Al-Gomhoreya represents a convergence in the interests of state and media in the propagation of moral panic, regardless of the consequences for rights or safety. The state benefits from legitimization as the sole authority to assert order at a time of chaos, and the media benefits from a guarantee of state protection and, undoubtedly, the economic gains that come from sensational news. This convergence has become ever clearer in recent months. In an early 2014 episode of the show “The Red Line,” aired on Honest TV, a young man, Mostafa Zakaria, was brought to discuss the rights of atheists. He was confronted with a barrage of insults from the host, the other panelist (a Muslim scholar), and call-in viewers; rather than a discussion on rights, Zakaria was placed on a veritable citizen’s trial, and his punishment was determined to be death.
A short time later, the head of state security in Alexandria, Major General Amin Ezz-el-Din, called into the same show and was informed of the prior participation of an atheist, who the host described as a proponent of “religious and intellectual terrorism.” Ezz-el-Din vowed to hunt down the atheists and to stop them in the act, and, indeed, a task force on atheism has been established in Alexandria. This public pronouncement denotes an escalation from previous representations of identity threat; given Egypt’s current security crisis and the state’s deep engagement with a war on terror (often used to justify a whole manner of repressive actions) the new designation of terrorist brings with it a great deal more force.
A Bleak Road Ahead
The concerning trend continues today, with the heightened moral panic—surrounding atheism in particular—leading to increasingly-reported violence. In addition to the April attack on Mohamed, only days later a young atheist was stabbed in the stomach as he walked out of a sporting club in Kafr el-Dawar; authorities did not express concern over his case. Mariam Hamdy was repeatedly beaten by her family and forced to take medication meant to treat epilepsy because of her intentions to marry an atheist man. Bahaa Ibrahim, a young Baha’i man, was harassed by security officers on his way to vacation in Sharm El-Sheikh on July 27; the officers called him an “infidel” and asked him to convert to Islam on the spot.
Increasingly converging state and media rhetoric, employing a language of terrorism and threat, paint the picture of a country at war, fighting over morality itself. The enemy is portrayed as that which does not conform to, and therefore threatens, the “authentic” Egyptian identity and value system, as this is defined by the state. This threat is, in fact, created for political ends, to legitimize authority based on the need to combat moral chaos. While it may still be early to pass judgment on Sisi’s presidency, it is not too early to raise the alarm bells on disturbing precedents that have already been set. Essentially, what is at stake is the freedom of belief.