Twenty months after a popular uprising brought an end to the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt still lacks an independent, impartial and clearly codified judicial system.
In the void of justice and security on Egypt’s streets, the directives of law enforcement that once flowed from the top down now increasingly flow the other way as a population empowered by the strength of revolution has sought to define a new society — with or without the central government’s support.
Entangled in that grass-roots pursuit of justice is a rising religiosity that has taken Egypt by storm since Mubarak’s fall. Islamists dominate the assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.
But it is outside the halls of government — in the streets, mosques, schools and courts — where Egypt’s Islamist revival is redefining the rights and responsibilities of ordinary citizens.
Blasphemy cases have jumped from one or two per year under Mubarak to at least 18 in the past year and a half, said Amr Gharbeia, the director of civil liberties at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based non-governmental organization.
Egypt’s penal code is vague on the issue of blasphemy, criminalizing only the use of extreme religious ideas “to incite strife.” But court cases that invoke the law increasingly derive less from obvious breaches than from popular “encouragement” by neighbors, relatives and crowds who feel emboldened by Egypt’s Islamic revival and the people power of revolution, Gharbeia said.
“We have also seen large groups of people gathering outside courthouses exerting huge pressure on the lawyers, defendants, and even on the judges themselves,” he said. In one instance, his organization’s lawyers were chased from a trial because the local community already had its own verdict in mind.
For Gamal, a self-described moderate Muslim, the impact of his town’s growing conservatism has been sobering. His girlfriend, Basma, had recently stopped wearing her head scarf, and the two had taken to strolling in public together, infuriating her family as neighbors taunted her for being a “whore.”
“Politically, Islam has always been around,” Gamal said. “But these days, the Islamists are trying to promote themselves. They’re picking fights with everyone, and they’re trying to dominate society.”
Basma’s relatives first tried to beat her into submission, Gamal said. Then they goaded the prosecutor as he interrogated the two about their religious beliefs.
“Instead of standing in front of an organized judiciary, I found myself back in the Middle Ages,” he said. After five hours, the two were released on bail, but Gamal, 17, said he has not seen or heard from Basma since. Gamal, who asked that Basma’s last name not be used, said he fears for her safety.