The Current Situation

Deprived of all rights as an organized religious community since 1960, the Bahá’í community of Egypt today faces a fresh crisis that aims to utterly destroy it as a viable religious community.

The current crisis stems from a Government decision, now being implemented, to computerize the national identity card system. The system has been set up to exclude Bahá’ís, depriving them of valid ID cards, making them virtual non-citizens, without access to employment, education, and all government services, including hospital care. Individuals without a valid ID card would even be unable to buy groceries from state markets. Already, a number of Bahá’í young people are currently without valid ID cards, a situation that has forced them out of universities and the army, placing them precariously on the margins of society.

Of equal concern, Bahá’ís have in recent months faced an upsurge in religious prejudice in Egyptian society at large. A number of attacks on Bahá’ís have been published in 2004 and 2005 in the Government-controlled news media. Likewise, in recent years, Muslim clerics in Egypt have issued “fatwas” against Bahá’ís.

A Bahá’í community of thousands, when the 1960 Presidential Decree was issued banning its activities, now shows some 500 members who are under strict and constant police surveillance. Periodically, their homes are searched and Bahá’í literature is taken away and destroyed. As Bahá’ís cannot legally marry, the entire community is without legal recourse in matters involving family allowances, pensions, inheritance, divorce, alimony or custody of children. The climate of hatred also creates a social stigma that affects education and employment.

ID Card Crisis

The immediate crisis concerns the Government’s computerization of the national identification card system — an interesting conjunction of modern technology and the oppression of a religious minority.

All citizens must carry ID cards, which must be presented not only for any type of government service, such as medical care in a public hospital or processing for a property title or deed, but also to obtain employment, education, banking services, and many other important private transactions. ID cards are also required to pass through police checkpoints, and individuals without such cards are accordingly deprived of freedom of movement.

In Egypt, ID cards require a statement of religious affiliation. Moreover, the system allows for one of only the three recognized religions of Egypt — Islam, Christianity, or Judaism — to be entered.

Bahá’ís have long refused as a matter of principle to falsely list themselves as Muslim, Christian, or Jew. Not only would such a step constitute committing fraud against the state, but such a denial of faith would effectively play into the hands of those who seek to eliminate the Bahá’ís in Egypt. Accordingly, Bahá’ís have simply left the religious affiliation slot blank, made a dash, written “other,” or even sometimes boldly listed “Bahá’í.” With the old paper ID cards, Bahá’ís were thus able to obtain cards and survive as individuals in Egyptian society.

In the 1990s, the Government announced it would be upgrading its identification card system by issuing computerized cards that would be less susceptible to forgery. This, the Government indicated, would help to combat militant Islamic unrest, and improve data collection and access. The Government indicated the shift to the new system would be gradual, but set January 2005 as the deadline for everyone to have the new cards — a deadline which has apparently been extended to 2006.

The system has apparently undergone modifications since it was set up. In 2003, for example, four Bahá’ís sought and obtained new computerized cards in which the religious affiliation field listed “other” — a designation to which the Bahá’í community does not object. More recently, however, the software has been updated so that only one of the three recognized religions can be entered. If the field is left blank, the computer refuses to issue the card.

The Bahá’í community of Egypt has approached the Government on numerous occasions to plead for a simple change in the programming, if not the law, so that they could be issued valid ID cards under the new system. Such pleas, however, have been met with rejection and refusal.

Accordingly, all members of the Egyptian Bahá’í community face the prospect of being left wholly without proper ID Cards by the year’s end — a situation in which they would essentially be denied all rights of citizenship, and, indeed, would be faced with the inability even to withdraw their own money from the bank, get medical treatment at public hospitals, or purchase food from state stores.

Already, the Government has asked young people to start coming in for the new cards, and a number of Bahá’í youth have accordingly been stripped of paper identification cards. Once stripped of ID cards, Bahá’í youth essentially become prisoners in their own homes, since the authorities often set up evening checkpoints to verify the identity of young men. Individuals without proper ID face detention. Likewise, young people without ID cards are denied entrance and continuing enrollment in colleges and universities, as well as service in the armed forces.

Given the Government’s refusal to make what would be the simplest of programming changes — such that the cards could be issued with a blank religious affiliation field or perhaps with the word “other” — one can only conclude that the ID card situation is in reality an attempt to further marginalize and eliminate the Bahá’í community of Egypt.

At one point, for example, Government officials offered Bahá’ís the possibility of using passports in lieu of ID cards — a ploy that would set the Bahá’ís apart or even drive them from their homeland. There is concern, as well, that refusing to list Bahá’í in any kind of national identification database enables the Government to officially proclaim that there are no Bahá’ís in the country.

Set against the burgeoning call for freedom and democracy in the Middle East, the Egyptian ID card “scam” offers an interesting twist in human rights oppression: the use of modern technology to nullify a community of one of the most progressive and peace minded religious groups in the Middle East.

Attacks in the Media

All this comes against bland denials by the Egyptian Government that the Bahá’ís lack fundamental human rights — rights which are ostensibly outlined in the Egyptian Constitution and definitively specified in international human rights agreements to which Egypt is a party. Indeed, the Government and its media have launched what amounts to a public campaign of the character of a chimera, proclaiming their adherence to the principles of human rights by publishing a series of inaccurate and negative articles about the Bahá’í Faith. No opportunity is given for the Bahá’ís to respond.

On 23 July 2004, for example, a weekly magazine, Rose el-Youssef, published a lengthy article insinuating that the Bahá’í Faith was a “dangerous” force in Egyptian society.

Under the defiant headline “The Bahá’ís in Egypt enjoy all rights of citizenship,” the article claimed that Bahá’ís in Egypt have no human rights problems. “The Bahá’ís feel no threat or danger,” the article asserted, while at the same time noting that Bahá’í institutions are banned because they are “dangerous.” The article’s defensive tone was apparently inspired by the July 2004 visit of the United States Committee on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which in fact did meet with members of Egypt’s Bahá’í community as part of their investigation of religious freedom in Egypt.
“What is strange is with regards to the Bahá’ís, they are not suffering any persecution in Egypt,” the article said, referring to the inquiries made by the USCIRF.

Yet the bulk of the article went on to misrepresent Bahá’í teachings and practice. It was claimed, for example, that the Bahá’í teachings “cause strife and differences” among its believers; it asserted that Bahá’ís threaten the unity of Egyptian society.

The writer seemed to feel no need to check even technical facts readily available in libraries or through the Internet. The article states that the Faith, which is established in over 200 countries, is limited to only 35 nations, “mostly the United States of America and Israel.” The article also named as the representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations a man who has been dead since January 2001.

On 1 August 2004, similarly, Nisf El Dunya magazine published the first installment of a two-part article that also started by mentioning the July 2004 visit of the USCIRF. Once again, the article defended the Government’s human rights record on the Bahá’ís, saying “Egypt does not know of any persecution of the followers of any denomination or religious sect…”

However, the article went on at considerable length about how the Bahá’í Faith is a “schismatic faction from under the cloak of Islam.” It also repeated old but false attacks on the Bahá’í community of Egypt, implying that they were once spies for Israel and, previous to that, agents of British colonialists.

Fatwas against the Bahá’ís

The Bahá’í community of Egypt has also faced persecution and harassment from the religious orthodoxy in Egypt. Over the years, the Faith has been the subject of at least 15 “fatwas” that deride the Faith as a heresy and accuse its followers of apostasy, a charge which is punishable by death under traditional Islamic law (Shariah).

Most recently, for example, on 15 December 2003, a fatwa by the Islamic Research Academy of the well-known Al-Azhar University described the Bahá’í Faith as “a lethal spiritual epidemic in the fight against which the state must mobilise all its contingencies to annihilate it.” The statement goes on ominously to demand “those [Bahá’ís] who have committed criminal acts against Islam and our country must disappear from life and not be allowed to announce their deviation from Islam.”

Past fatwas have made similar pronouncements — and they have been repeated and reported on in the press, further fuelling the air of discrimination and oppression faced by Bahá’ís in Egypt.

Although the situation of the Bahá’ís of Egypt has certain parallels to the on-going persecution of Bahá’ís in Iran, there are a number of differences: the community is much smaller (and therefore more vulnerable); the restrictions on activities are more explicit (spiritual and administrative institutions and all forms of assembly are banned); and the persecution comes at the behest of a secular government, albeit one that must pay political heed to the cross-currents of Islamic traditionalists.

What is similar to the situation in Iran is the profound hatred long expressed by Muslim orthodoxy towards the Bahá’í Faith.

Less than non-entities

Against this backdrop, the continuing refusal of the Government to rescind the 1960 Presidential Decree banning Bahá’í institutions is made all the more ominous by the new threat involving computerized identification cards.

As noted, ID cards in general are required to receive virtually any social service. Over the years, Bahá’ís have managed to obtain legitimate ID cards by simply leaving the space designating “religion” blank — something that was possible with old style paper cards.

But once the computerized system is fully operational, if there is no change so as to allow Bahá’ís to register, a change that could be as simple as allowing “blank” or “other” to be input, the Bahá’ís of Egypt will become non-entities — or worse.

In January 2002, for example, an Egyptian Bahá’í went to a Civil Affairs Office to obtain a new ID card. The official refused to accept the form after noting the space indicating religion had been left blank. The Bahá’í was sent to a Directorate level office where he was handcuffed and blindfolded, and ultimately detained for five days. During that time, he was interrogated on such questions as “How did you become a Bahá’í?” and “What are the names of other Bahá’ís?” At one point during the interrogation, the officer took out his pistol, loaded it, and threatened the detainee, saying “Do you know what the penalty for apostasy is?” At another point, the officer said, “You have to be frank with me, or else I shall electrocute you, or break your bones.”

History of the Persecution of the Bahá’ís of Egypt >