While the world remains focused on how Egypt’s court of public opinion drove an autocrat from power, an Egyptian court of law recently rendered a verdict that is dismaying for those seeking a more democratic future.
Late last month, an Egyptian emergency court acquitted two of the original three men accused of the religiously motivated murder of six Coptic Orthodox Christians, along with one Muslim guard, in the town of Naga Hammadi on Coptic Christmas eve in January 2010.
While Hosni Mubarak’s resignation could be the first step toward advancing the rule of the majority, the Naga Hammadi verdict could signal a regrettable step backward in the fight for protecting the rights of individuals and minorities, especially the pivotal right of freedom of religion or belief.
Clearly, if Egypt is to build a stable democracy, then human rights, including religious freedom, must be protected for all citizens.
For years, Egypt’s government failed to provide such protection The Mubarak regime neglected to curb repression and discrimination against vulnerable religious minorities, such as Christians and Baha’is, or to punish those responsible for the worst violations, including heinous acts of violence.
The Naga Hammadi decision continues this pattern. The ruling underscores the need for further steps, including greater protection of places of worship for Christians and other minorities, as well as bringing to justice those responsible for the New Year’s bombing in Alexandria which took at least 23 lives and injured scores more.
Moreover, the fact that an emergency court decided the case is itself problematic. Such courts operate under Egypt’s Emergency Law, which restricts religious freedom and related human rights and prohibits any right of appeal. All too often, emergency courts have detained and tried people whose only crime is embracing religious beliefs or practices that differ from the government-approved version of Islam.
Enacted in 1981, the Emergency Law is the legacy of the Mubarak government’s flawed strategy of countering radicalism by restricting religious freedom. The regime viewed dissident Sunni and Shi’a Muslims alike, including Koranists and Ahmadis, with suspicion. It filled Egypt’s jails with these and other citizens, torturing or detaining them for long periods without charging them with any crime.
Restrictions on religion in the name of stability aggravated the very conditions the regime was trying to avoid. They turned millions against the government, driving some into the hands of violent extremists. Worst of all, government repression of mainstream Muslims and non-Muslim minorities crippled their ability to compete for Egyptian hearts and minds against the radicals, who learned to operate effectively underground.
As Egypt’s most powerful ally, the United States backed the Mubarak government, viewing it as a bulwark against Islamist extremism. Rather than advocating religious freedom, and nurturing democratic forces within Egypt, U.S. foreign policy historically has turned a blind eye to freedom in the name of stability. Instead of stability, Mubarak’s regime has imploded, and it remains unclear whether a truly effective democratic movement can emerge to oppose a radical Islamist option.
It is not enough to advocate that Egypt’s demonstrators be heard and heeded. That alone could usher in a new form of tyranny. The United States must support actions to strengthen universal human rights, including the individual right to freedom of conscience or belief.
The U.S. should encourage the new Egyptian government to lift the state of emergency; prosecute the perpetrators of sectarian violence in regular criminal courts; pass a unified law on building and maintaining places of worship; remove religious affiliation from identity documents; end discrimination against Christians and other religious minorities; repeal bans on Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses; revoke Egypt’s blasphemy law; and ratify a constitution that enshrines rule of law and ensures robust protection for religious freedom.
The will of the majority should not be ignored. But the rights of individuals and minorities, including the right to religious freedom, must also be protected. That should be the response to the recent court verdict. Both messages are critical to a stable, democratic future for Egypt.
Leonard Leo is chairman and Elizabeth H. Prodromou is vice chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.