Egypt's unholy war against minorities

Hot on the heels of the "gay bath-house" raid in Cairo just over a week ago, there was news yesterday that Egyptian authorities have forcibly closed an "atheist cafe".

Besides atheists who were allegedly "spreading misconceptions about heavenly religions" in the cafe, it is also said to have been a centre for "devil worship, rituals and dances" and a place where the secular April 6 youth movement held meetings with ISIS. For good measure, Scott Long, who has written extensively about sexual minorities in Egypt, says it was known as a gay hangout. Gay people, he says, "were much more noticeable than the atheists".

The cafe, Hekayatna ("Our Story") in Falaky Street, a short walk from Tahrir Square, was actually shut down several weeks ago but its closure had gone unreported until yesterday. Sada el-Balad website has a series of pictures which appear to show the entrance being sealed after chairs and other items had been removed and stacked up in the street.

MBC's website has pictures taken some time earlier showing the interior, including a chalk-board menu in English offering a range of pancakes and waffles. Another picture shows the famous dissident and human rights lawyer, Ahmed Seif al-Islam (who died last August) seated at a table.

An official quoted by Mada Masr website sought to justify the cafe's closure on legal grounds. It was unauthorised, unlicensed and drugs were found inside, he said. Allegedly, the premises had been registered as an import/export office.

MBC (in Arabic) quotes the cafe's former owner, identified as "Mustafa Baghdadi", saying that he opened it in 2012, renting it legally, and that from the outset it became "a gathering place for most of the youth of the revolution".

The Cairo Post quotes a lawyer from the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information suggesting that the legal reasons cited for the closure may simply have been a pretext. (Egypt has countless petty regulations which tend not to be enforced unless the authorities decide to invoke them for unrelated reasons.)

There is no specific law in Egypt against either atheism or homosexuality but, just as gay people can be prosecuted for "debauchery", atheists can be prosecuted if they "insult" Islam, Judaism or Christianity.

Although the claims of atheists worshipping Satan and secularists plotting with jihadists in the cafe are ludicrous, they are not unusual in the context of Egypt's periodic moral panics. Allegations of strange rituals and Satanic worship also surfaced in 2001 during the notorious "Queen Boat" trial of 52 allegedly gay men.

While directing most of its brutality against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Sisi regime is also cracking down on various kinds of social and political nonconformity – and there is little doubt that the closure of Hekayatna, with its largely secular and left-leaning clientele, is part of that.

Tiny minorities that arouse little public sympathy – such as atheists, LGBT people and even members of the Baha'i faith – also serve as useful scapegoats for Egypt's many problems. 

Last week, an advisor to Egypt's Grand Mufti claimed there were precisely 866 atheists in the country (out of a population of around 90 million) but while the number was "not very large" it should "ring alarm bells" across Egypt.

In September, a government-linked newspaper, Al-Shabab, declared that "atheists are the country's second enemy after the Muslim Brotherhood", and quoted a psychologist saying that "atheism leads to mental imbalances and paranoia".

Last week, the Ministry of Endowments warned of "growing dangers of the spread of Baha'ism". It said the Baha'i faith (which probably has no more than 3,000 followers in Egypt) "threatens Islam specifically and Egyptian society in general". 

Gay men were also portrayed as a threat to the state during the Queen Boat trial. To highlight the supposed danger to the nation, the case was sent to the state security court, specially set up under an emergency law established in 1981 to deal with suspected terrorists. A Cairo newspaper reinforced this view with its front-page headline: "Perverts declare war on Egypt".Whatever benefits the regime hopes to gain from this approach, it also fuels Islamist arguments that the solution to Egypt's problems is more religion, not less.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 15 December 2014