"I respect nonbelievers. If someone tells me [they are] neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew or that he or she does not believe in religion, I would tell them, you are free to choose."
Some activists criticized Sisi over "his selective approach to freedom," in reference to the increased restrictions on freedom of speech and expression in Egypt and the detention of government critics and opposition figures; others welcomed his words as signaling a positive change to come.
"And it is not because I am not protective of my religion. I am. And that is why I respect the will of nonbelievers, which is based on freedom of belief — a God-given right. … But will a society that has been conditioned to think in a certain way for the last 90 years accept this? " Sisi asked.
While Article 64 of the Egyptian Constitution guarantees freedom of belief and worship, the 2021 Humanists International Freedom of Belief Report reveals "a pattern of impunity or collusion in violence by nonstate actors against the nonreligious."
Government figures and state agencies openly marginalize, harass or incite hatred against the nonreligious, the report states.
Indeed, there is little tolerance for atheists in the conservative, predominantly Muslim society where non-believers rarely speak out about their lack of faith for fear of arrest or at times, even death.
While Egypt has no laws criminalizing atheism, nonbelievers that come out as such are often sentenced to three years in prison on the charge of "contempt of religion."
Article 98 of the penal code stipulates that "whoever exploits religion in order to promote extremist ideology by word of mouth, in writing or in any other manner, with a view to stirring up sedition, or in contempt of any divine religion or its adherents, or undermining national unity shall be punished with prison terms of between six months and five years or a fine of at least 500 Egyptian pounds."
It is not just the law that is being used to silence atheists; some devout Muslims see it as a religious duty to punish "the infidels" by attacking them verbally or physically. A June 2013 Pew research survey shockingly reveals that nearly 90% of Egypt's Muslims believe that leaving Islam "should be punishable by death."
When Ismail Mohamed, an atheist, appeared on Egyptian Television in 2013 to talk about the reasons for his lack of faith, he was pilloried by the show's presenter, Riham El Sahly. His "breakthrough" appearance shocked viewers, who were unaccustomed to hearing unconventional views expressed on national television.
"That young man was sitting there confidently making his case; I was amazed," Hisham Kassem, a political analyst and rights activist, told Voice of America after watching the show. "I never thought I would see this in my lifetime."
Atheist and rights activist Ahmed El Harqan, who was interviewed on another talk show on the privately owned Al Asima Channel, was again ridiculed and taunted by the talk show host who kicked him out of the studio halfway through the show.
"Get out, you infidel! We don't want nonbelievers on the show," Rania Yassin, the show's presenter, shouted as the bewildered young man got up to leave.
Yassin later told Al Watan news site she had been against hosting an atheist on her show but had acquiesced under pressure from the show's producer. The latter had persuaded her it was a "timely topic" given "the rise in atheism in the society."
While the exact number of atheists in Egypt is unknown, Al-Sabah, a Cairo-based newspaper, claimed there were up to 3 million atheists in the country in 2013, according to a BBC report.
In the early years after the 2011 uprising that forced Hosni Mubarak to step down, some atheists in Egypt had sought to capitalize on their newfound (albeit short-lived) freedom by publicly announcing their lack of faith on social media; many of them were made to pay a high price for opening up about their nonconformity.
Alber Saber, then a 27-year-old blogger and computer science student who was raised in a Coptic Christian family, was one of those who dared speak out about their conversion. He published comments that were critical of Islam and Christianity on his Facebook page and allegedly shared a link to the YouTube trailer of a controversial film, "The Innocence of Muslims," which had ignited protests across the Muslim world.
The move earned him the wrath of Muslim neighbors who amassed outside his home, hurling insults at him and threatening to kill him. When his terrified mother reported the incident to the police, Saber was arrested in place of the perpetrators. In September 2012, he was sentenced by a Court of Misdemeanor to three years in prison on charges of "blasphemy" and "contempt of religion." He did not, however, serve the full sentence but was released in December 2012 on bail for 1,000 Egyptian pounds pending appeal. Saber has since fled the country out of fear for his safety and continues to live overseas in self-imposed exile.
El Harqan, however, was not quite as fortunate. In October 2019, he was turned back from the airport by a customs officer as he tried to board a plane bound for Tunisia and was informed that a travel ban had been imposed on him because of his media appearances. El Harqan went on a hunger strike to protest the ban and managed to leave Egypt in January after appealing it.
Such is the plight suffered by Egypt's atheists who are left with no option but to flee the country or keep their lack of belief in God a well-guarded secret. It is little wonder then that Sisi's recent comments were met with skepticism. One Facebook user accused him of "uttering hollow words to appease the West."
The president's remarks came in response to an equally controversial call by journalist Ibrahim Eissa to remove religion from national ID cards.
"Stating one's religion on ID cards is relatively new in Egypt; it was introduced in 1956," noted Eissa.
"A citizen's religion should not concern public service employees, nor should it matter to security officials," he argued.
He continued, "Promoting freedom of belief in Egypt is necessary to counter terrorist ideology, which can very well destroy the achievements made so far."
Many welcomed Eissa's call as a step in the right direction, but some hard-liners such as Yasser Setouhy, a preacher and an assistant professor at Al Azhar University, rejected it, arguing in a televised debate on the privately owned channel TEN that the move was "equivalent to obscuring an important part of one's identity."
Responding to Eissa's comments, Justice Minister Omar Marwan said that "while it is not important to state one's religion on national ID cards, it is vital that we have concrete proof of one's religious affiliation." He said there are certain rights based on one's faith such as in marriage, divorce and inheritance.
Marwan said, "We do not have the same Personal Status Law for all Egyptians. The constitution stipulates that Sharia rulings apply to Muslims in Personal Status issues while Christians and Jews should refer to their own rulings on such matters."
Eissa's demand came amid wider calls to omit religion from national IDs. On Aug. 25, lawyer Naguib Gabriel, head of Egypt's Human Rights Federation and a Coptic Christian, filed a legal complaint in the Administrative Court against the interior minister and his aides in the Ministry's Civil Status Department, demanding the elimination of religion from national ID cards.
Fatima El Naoot, a liberal writer and poet and a staunch supporter of the idea, told Al-Monitor the national ID card "is a citizenship contract between the citizen and the state; one's religion is a private matter, and any Egyptian cardholder is a citizen regardless of his or her faith."
"Having one's religion cited on the national ID card is a blatant form of discrimination," she argued.
She continued, "Discrimination against Egypt's Coptic Christians was widespread in the '70s, '80s and '90s to the extent that some companies had refused to hire Christians, and landlords had turned away potential tenants if they discovered they were Christians; this is no longer the case."
Still, Coptic Christians, who make up an estimated 10-12% of the population, continue to complain of other forms of discrimination such as their exclusion from the security sector and even from the national football team. Moreover, Coptic Christians have been the target of multiple militant attacks in recent years. Dozens of them have been killed, had their homes torched or were forcibly evicted from their villages.
It remains to be seen whether the comments made by Sisi and Eissa are merely cosmetic or a start toward greater inclusion of minorities whether Copts, atheists or others.
Said Sadek, a political sociology specialist, believes change is a must and is imminent. "Egypt is laying the foundations for a secular, democratic state; we need to have the separation of state and church, but for that to happen, we need education, greater awareness-raising and enlightenment," he told Al-Monitor.
"That is starting to happen, but first and foremost we need to do away with the hate speech in the media," he said. "Besides, extremist ideology is deeply entrenched in state institutions, making it difficult to effect rapid change; a gradual, sustained process is needed to reverse decades of extremism and alter the prevalent fundamentalist mindset."