(AINA) -- On August 30, 2009 Egyptian police forces in the Upper Egyptian town of Aswan, launched an unprecedented and unconstitutional campaign to enforce the Ramadan fast, the Muslim month of fasting, arresting 150 for publicly eating, drinking or smoking.
These arrests were seen by many as a step closer towards adopting an Egyptian model of the Saudi Arabian "Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice" Police Squads.
"There is no such offence in the Egyptian law," said lawyer Khaled Ali, executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. "The Interior Ministry, to justify the arrests, has twisted "violating public decency," which is punishable under Egyptian law, by making eating and drinking publicly in Ramadan to fall under this category."
Faced with a public outcry, the Ministry of Interior denied the arrests, and the Aswan head of Criminal Investigations stated, contrary to published reports, that the arrests never happened at all. This was followed by the Ministry of Interior saying the public has misunderstood the campaign, which is aimed at combating crime in general and drugs in particular during the holy month, and that those arrested 'looked suspicious' to the police.
Coptic lawyer and activist, Mamdouh Ramzy told the Egyptian newspaper al-Youm al-Saba'a on 9/8/2009 that the police in the Governorates of Hurgada and Dakahlia have been following suit. He called on the Minister of Interior to investigate the police officers involved in these campaigns, and failing that, Ramzy threatened to file a complaint with the Attorney General.
Ramzy fears that Egypt is becoming another "Taliban State," and described the Interior Ministry's actions as persecution of Christians, who naturally don't fast during Ramadan and are prone to arrests. He cites these actions as strong evidence of the "radicalization" of the Egyptian police forces.
Al Arabiya News reported on 9/9/2009 the governor of Hurgada ordered all cafes and restaurants to be closed for business during the day, despite the city's popularity as a tourist destination. It also reported that in the Delta governorate of Dakahlia, seven youths were arrested for smoking in the street and were later released after paying a fine of LE 500 ($90).
Jurists and human rights organizations in Egypt condemned the raids, saying that there is no article in the law nor in the Constitution, which provides for arresting those who publicly broke the fast. In addition, it is against the civil rights of citizens, and neither the police nor others are allowed to violate them.
Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), cites this incident as evidence that "the government is implicitly endorsing turning Egypt into a religious state," in an interview with the Egyptian newspaper al-Youm al-Saba'a. "Silence over the actions of its police force in Aswan only proves that the Interior Ministry is in collusion and approves this illegal behavior."
Eid also says this is not the first time the government tried to adopt these Ramadan non-fasting campaigns. "Two years ago, the government tried them in Cairo and several arrests were made at the time, but it had to back down because they were unconstitutional"
Mohamed Al-Jilani, Assistant Secretary-General of the Free Constitutional Party and founder of "Egypt for Egyptians" Association said that Egypt now lives in the "Golden Age of Wahhabism"
Coptic activist General Nasry Girgis told Copts United that history tells us that until the beginning of the reign of Khedive Muhammad Ali, Christians were forbidden to manifest publicly breaking fast in Ramadan. "Does this means we are moving backwards 200 years in time?"
Members of the Islamic Research Academy called on 8/9/2009 for a law to be passed which makes breaking Ramadan fast in public punishable. One of its members, Dr. Mohamed Othman, told the Egyptian Rosel Youssef newspaper "to profess breaking Ramadan fast is a disrespect to the feelings of those who fast, and if there is an excuse for not fasting, then a person should stay out of public sight."
Dr. Mohamed el-Gindy, Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, gives the authorities the right to arrest those who publicly break Ramadan fast, and should issue a binding ruling to punish them. He explains that those who are not fasting should not leave their homes, and venture out into the street, as this is something which is contrary to the norm, therefore the public authority is authorized and can act to prevent committing such a "sin."
Muslim Salafis greeted the arrests as a step forward towards implementing Shari'a laws in Egypt. Sheikh Adel al-Sayed, deputy chairman of the religious non-governmental organization Ansar al-Sunnah (Supporters of the Prophet's Teachings) in Egypt, told Al Arabiya News that although fasting is between Allah and His worshiper, flaunting sins publicly is against Shari'a and the police initiative promotes virtue and prevents vice. "If a man drinks at home, I cannot arrest him but if he drinks in public, I am fully entitled to pursue him in the name of the law; there is a clear clause in Egyptian law against violating ethics and morals."
During Ramadan in September 2008, the police in the north-eastern city of Port Said, near the Suez Canal, raided and demolished the cafe of six Christian brothers and brutally assaulted them for opening for business during Ramadan. The Ghattas brothers were sentenced in January 2009 to three years imprisonment with hard labor, charged with resisting arrest and assaulting the police. Although a video of the police raid, shot by a passerby, was presented to court by their defense lawyer, Ramsis el-Naggar, the judge dismissed it.
In the latest campaigns, police officers have actually used their official position and made use of the government's organs to limit the freedom of citizens and criminalized their behavior without any legal basis. The great concern is the lack of clarity on the law of "violating public decency."
By Mary Abdelmassih