This week’s Egyptian court ruling imposing death sentences for 529 Muslim Brotherhood members was widely condemned abroad as a troubling sign for the health of the nation's democracy. But Cairo’s continued escalation against the Islamist organization might also give outsiders the false impression that religion in general is under attack in Egypt.

In fact, another crackdown is under way against a very different perceived enemy of the state: atheists. While atheism in Egypt has long been taboo, the perils of not believing in God became especially plain after Alexandria security chief Amin Ezz El-Din announced on the Egyptian talk show Khatt ahmar (Redline) that a new task force would be created to apprehend atheists for their “crimes.”

El-Din’s statement came after the appearance by atheist activist Mostefa Zakareya, whom host Muhamad Moussa had previously invited on the show to express his views and debate with a Muslim sheikh.

“Thank you very much for your efforts in fighting the organization of terrorism, the Muslim Brotherhood,” Moussa told El-Din. “[But the atheism issue] is a concern of no less importance than fighting terrorism, because this is intellectual and religious terrorism.”

Moussa and El-Din were criticized on social media. One YouTube comment in Arabic reads, “I expected that the [Muslim] Brothers would be the ones to launch an inquisition! I guess there’s no difference between the Brothers and their opponents. They’re all together in the darkness.”

Using the well-known Brotherhood slogan to mock El-Din, the following tweet reads: General Amin Ezz El-Din on Khatt ahmar: “A task force will be formed to apprehend this atheist.” Islam is the answer Your Excellency the Pasha.

That the fall of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 has not made it easier for Egyptians who hold non-conformist religious views should not necessarily come as a surprise. Atheists and “blasphemers” have faced persecution in Egypt before — during, and after Morsi’s presidency.

Under President Hosni Mubarak in 2007, Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman was sentenced to four years in prison for charges that included calling Al-Azhar University, the country’s top Islamic institution, “the university of terrorism.” Soliman alleged that he had been tortured in prison by Egyptian authorities before his release in November 2010.

During Morsi’s presidency, publicly atheist Egyptian activist Alber Saber Ayad was found guilty of defaming religion after Internet posts allegedly promoted the film Innocence of Muslims, which satirizes Islam. Ayad also stated that he was beaten and tortured while detained. 

While the exact number of atheists and non-believers in Egypt is hard to determine, the rise of social media has given them powerful new means for expression and solidarity. Multiple Facebook pages and groups, the most active of which include the Egyptian Atheists Community and the Egyptian Atheists and Agnostics Social Club, serve as dedicated forums where Egyptians whose views do not necessarily align with official ones can share media and make their voices heard.

But it is precisely these forms of public expression that many Egyptians find unacceptable, and that the Alexandria security chief may soon begin targeting.

— Hassan Shiban

Photo: Egyptian Atheists Community FB page