Egypt Cracks Down on Insults to Religion

Article Summary
Egypt's media and unviversities are under pressure from government censors.

When Mona Prince opened her Facebook inbox on April 13 and saw the message from a colleague, she thought at first that it was a bad joke. She read an appeal by students of the Suez Canal University, where Prince works as a professor of English. It was the invitation to join a rally — and to demand her expulsion.

"I was shocked when I realized that the call was meant seriously," Prince, 43, said in an interview with Al-Monitor — numerous interrogations and murder threats later. She can no longer pursue her work and will probably have to answer to the court, her professional future uncertain.

It all started in early April, when Prince said the issue to be discussed in class was religious tension in Egypt. During the discussion, Prince pointed to a poster: Salafist students had put it on the walls of the university building. In large letters, the slogan read, "Shiites are the enemy.“ Such posters, Prince said to the students, were an example of sectarianism in Egypt after the revolution. Some religious sheikhs would incite sectarian strife in the country, she added, without naming names.

Among the results of the growing influence of Islamist forces in post-revolutionary Egypt are repeated clashes among religious groups that often lead to violence. In April, nine Christians were killed in two days of rioting in front of St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo. One Muslim died in the clashes; there were numerous injuries. Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejed's visit to Egypt, the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites have become visible on the Nile. Salafists especially see the rapprochement between the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi and his Shiite colleague Ahmadinejad very critically. In April, they vented  their anger loudly in Tahrir Square.

Some students disagreed with Prince‘s statements during the lecture about sheikhs inciting religious conflicts. A lively debate began — as it should at a university. At that time, Prince had no idea of the avalanche she had set off. One student was so upset about the teacher that she wrote a complaint right after the lecture; about 40 fellow students signed the complaint. Not much attention was paid that some students signed the letter who had not even been present in the class. The dean of the faculty received the complaint and the machinery was set in motion. The students accused Prince of having insulted religion, and stated that she was unacceptable as a professor in the university.

Insulting religion — any religion — is a criminal offense in Egypt, and a socially proscribed crime. As Musbah Maher, president of Suez Canal University, told the newspaper Al-Youm As-Sabee, Mona Prince must stand trial for "insulting Islam," all dams were broken.

Prince received death threats and the university administration told her to stay away from campus because it couldn't guarantee her safety. Not only her safety, also her professional future is at stake: "Hardly any university in Egypt wants to hire someone who is accused of insulting Islam," says Prince. "They are not only trying to destroy my academic career, they defame me as a citizen of this country and as a woman."

However, the petite woman with the great head of curly hair is not surprised by the events of the last few weeks. She is used to being a thorn in the side of the authorities. As a political activist, she was not only involved in the protests against then-President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, she also went to the streets to protest against the temporary military regime that took over the government after Mubarak's fall in February 2011. At Suez Canal University, she quickly gained the reputation of a troublemaker and was called "one of those candidacy people." In the meantime, she wrote a book titled My Name is Revolution and announced her candidacy for president in the next elections in Egypt. That proved to be too much for the school.

"The administration managed to get me to suspend for six months of service," says Prince. But the university did not manage to intimidate her: She sued the administration successfully. Prince could continue to work at the university, but under the regime of the Muslim Brotherhood, which replaced the military regime in June 2012, it became even harder for the spirited woman with the warm and hoarse voice.

Prince's case shows how difficult the struggle for freedom of expression is in Egypt under President Mohammed Morsi — and it shows the danger of any statement that touches the sensitive topic of religion. The arbitrariness of the authorities and an extreme sensitivity to religious issues does not only complicate the work of journalists and TV stars like Bassem Youssef, the education system is also impaired. In an open letter to the President of the Suez Canal University, The Middle East Studies Association of North America asks: "Must every professor worry that if a student displeased by what s/he teaches, she will be subject to questioning by administrators and suspended from his/her job?“

There is also support coming from Egypt: 15 Egyptian organizations condemned, in a joint public statement, the Suez Canal University's behavior and the curtailment of freedom of expression in the case of Mona Prince. A University, asserted the statement, has to promote debate and discussion and offer space for differing opinions, to develop the student’s intellectual and social skills. The signatories of this opinion included not only human rights organizations, but also parties like the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

The International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) said in April that there was a general lack freedom of expression in Egypt under Morsi and alleged that there was not only a growing number of cases in where the accused must defend against the accusation of insulting religion: The organization said that in the three decades under Mubarak, four cases of insulting the President were reported, while during the first six months under Morsi, more than 24 cases of insulting the president have been reported.

Bassem Youssef was accused of both insulting the president and the religion, while Prince, so far, has only had to defend herself against the accusation of insulting religion — bad enough in a society in which religion still has immense significance in daily life.

But the spirited Prince presents herself as tough and self-confident. She appeared before the public when she heard about the accusations brought against her, she appeared in debates about her case on television, for example, in Mona Shazhy’s show on MBC Egypt, and she keeps her audience updated on Facebook.

The support of organizations gives her strength, says Prince. Behind the confident facade, however, her tension sometimes shows through. "The university administration will not give up until they finally get rid of me, it is a systematic campaign against me," she says.

Even among colleagues at the university there were many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, said Prince. "Some colleagues don’t even say good morning to me anymore," she says, smiling, but with a bitter undertone.

Whether under Mubarak, the military regime or the Muslim Brotherhood — controversial personalities such as Mona Prince have a hard time in the land of the Nile.

Katharina Pfannkuch is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. She contributes regularly to the German newspapers Die Zeit, Die Welt and SPIEGEL ONLINE. In her work, she focuses on social and cultural developments in Arab societies. In 2011, she graduated with a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies with a focus on modern Islamic law from the University of Leipzig, Germany.

Found in: suppression of freedoms, freedom, university, muslim, egypt, academics

Katharina Pfannkuch is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. She contributes regularly to the German newspapers Die Zeit, Die Welt and Spiegel Online. In her work, she focuses on social and cultural developments in Arab societies. In 2011, she graduated with a masters degree in Middle Eastern studies with a focus on modern Islamic law from the University of Leipzig, Germany.


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