Egypt outlaws protests in places of worship

April 5, 2008

Protest in al-Azhar mosque against Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech, 22 Sept 2006/Nasser NuriEgypt’s parliament has passed a law criminalising protests in places of worship, a measure the government’s opponents see as part of a wider pattern of reining in popular opposition.

The bill has been touted as a bid to protect the sanctity of places of worship by a government eager to burnish its religious credentials, tarnished by unpopular foreign policy decisions and a continuous crackdown on the Islamist opposition.

However, the law passed on Wednesday is widely seen as an effort to clamp down on the protests often held in major mosques such as al-Azhar, the university-mosque that has been a center of Islamic learning for over a thousand years.

Protests are illegal without government approval in Egypt, and mosques such as al-Azhar are among the Muslim Brotherhood members protest in al-Azhar mosque, 20 Oct 2006/Goran Tomasevicfew venues available for the public to voice discontent, possibly because the government would be reluctant to be seen as violating such a hallowed place by sending in riot troops.

Such protests have enjoyed extensive coverage on pan-Arab channels such as al-Jazeera, and this seems to have irked the government, which recently spearheaded a drive to bring satellite broadcasters to heel.

Al-Azhar specifically has a history as a rallying point for uprisings and popular causes, including notably a rebellion against Napoleon, and Ahmed Urabi’s uprising in the late 19th century.

The official religious establishment is expected to back the measure; indeed the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Mohamed Women protest at al-Azhar mosque against Pope Benedict’s Regensburg speech, 22 Sept 2006/Nasser NuriSayed Tantawi, has often been on the receiving end of criticism and derision from protesters in the mosque over his close ties to the state.

In fact, the office of the Grand Sheikh, which Tantawi has filled since 1996, seems to enjoy better standing and more prestige outside Egypt and the Muslim world than inside, where most people believe the office has been completely compromised by its subordination to a secular state.

Many Egyptians point to the fact that the Grand Sheikh, at one time elected by al-Azhar’s scholars, is now appointed by the president and is effectively a salaried official of the state.FILE PHOTO: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Sheikh Al-Azhar Mohamed Sayyed Tantawi, 07 July 1998/pool                                                            

As such, the institution is regularly called upon to provide Islamic approval for whatever controversial policy the government wishes to pursue:  peace with Israel, Egypt’s participation in the Gulf War of 1990-91, or the payment of bank interest, to name just a few.

Interestingly, the new bill includes a provision that allows the government to jail or fine anyone involved in calling for a protest in a place of worship — even if no protest actually materialises.

It remains to be seen whether the bill will put an end to the protests, which often seemed to erupt fairly spontaneously after Friday prayers, or prove counterproductive by merely placing more pressure on a population already facing a growing raft of social ills.

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