Egyptians once again are mourning the victims of a vile terrorist attack, this time on a church in Helwan near Cairo that killed nine innocent people including a police officer and injured four others during religious celebrations preceding Coptic Christmas on 7 January.
Despite heightened security measures and pre-emptive strikes by the security forces, the terrorists were able to strike. However, the security forces managed to avoid a more major incident as they defused an explosive device set to blow up the church, which could have caused a further catastrophe.
Though fighting a ferocious war on terrorism, the Egyptian army and security forces have been largely left to fight the war on their own, with much of the country’s media and many of its institutions acting like spectators or armchair experts whose recommendations may lead to further extremism.
This can be seen in the media’s obsession with leading witch-hunts against various figures across the country. Anyone who attempts to mobilise the country in favour of change and reform is met with storms of criticism, witch-hunts, and even lawsuits from media anchors, lawyers and politicians who may utilise loopholes in the law or the blasphemy law to hunt down such reformers.
Not satisfied with the current assortment of unconstitutional laws that contradict the freedom of speech embodied in the 2014 constitution, some MPs are obsessed with proposing even stricter laws that curb freedom of expression and worship in the name of national security. Among these laws proposed by the parliament’s Religions Committee is a law that prohibits atheism and introduces prison sentences or fines for those publicly professing it.
MPs unintentionally catering to the needs of extremists under the pretext of upholding ethics are the last thing Egypt needs during its war on terrorism. After all, most Egyptians rose up in 2013 to oust the Muslim Brotherhood and its ilk from power, and many of them cannot fathom why MPs are now proposing strict religious laws on sometimes ridiculous pretexts.
The Religions Committee’s role on Egypt’s political scene is vague and contradicts articles of the constitution upholding the freedom of worship and belief. It also serves critics of the government due to its proposals for oppressive laws. The committee is a relic of the past, and it now needs to be consigned to history. Tampering with citizens’ freedom of belief and expression regardless of the pretext is a one-way ticket to dictatorship and violence.
The MPs were elected to uphold the laws and the constitution while aiming to solve Egypt’s pressing economic, security and social issues. However, these issues seem to have taken a back seat among the priorities of some MPs who now discuss trifling matters such as video clips on YouTube and waste tax-payers’ money on proposing laws to combat atheism.
The country is in dire need of a parliament that lives up to the challenges facing it and formulates real strategies to combat the extremism that has afflicted it over the past three decades. At the moment, the Egyptian police and army are fighting the war on terrorism almost alone with no serious backup from the media or politicians except clichéd statements of support that are hardly manifested in actions.
Confronting the evil of terrorism must be done by combating all forms of extremism and opening the doors for a secular and liberal society to flourish. That kind of society will be able to shield itself against extremism and terrorism and assist in combating these things more effectively than any new laws. However, unfortunately at the moment the counter-productive status quo that has led to the current wave of extremism is still prevailing within some policy-makers’ minds as they attempt to use the same worn-out initiatives to deal with terrorism while still expecting positive results.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly