We’ve known for a long time now that Egypt is not a safe country for atheists. People who have said publicly that they’re atheists, like Karim al-Banna and Alber Saber, have received prison sentences of up to three years for the crime of “blasphemy” or religious contempt.
In 2014, government officials said (in an eerily specific way) that there were exactly 866 atheists in the country. It was a way of suggesting they knew who the people were and that the number was getting lower all the time. But in a country of nearly 95 million people, there’s no way that number was even close to accurate. Estimates put the true number anywhere from two million to four million.
Still, over the past few years, atheism itself wasn’t a crime. You only broke the law if you promoted it publicly. That’s why managing a Facebook group for atheists or criticizing Islam put those activists in the government’s crosshairs. That’s also why millions of potential atheists were rounded down to under 1,000: They knew it was safer to remain in the closet.
It’s unclear how Egypt would go about prosecuting atheists who weren’t out of the closet about their (non-)beliefs. The law itself may just be a scare tactic to force skeptics to profess their faith anytime, anywhere. But it’s not hard to believe that this law would seriously be considered. Given the way Egypt has handled religious freedom in the past, this seems like the logical next step in the theocratic vision for the nation.
I hope the reports turn out to be inaccurate. I fear they’re not. So far, no mainstream news source has confirmed any of the reporting.
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