A bite and a sip can now land you in jail in Egypt. Egyptians who eat or drink in public during Ramadan are being arrested as part of a new government campaign that has human rights organizations crying foul.
Egypt's Ministry of Interior launched for the first time a campaign to enforce prohibitions against daytime eating, drinking and smoking in public during the Muslim holy month. Human rights organizations lashed out at the crackdown as a violation of personal freedoms.
The ministry follows in the footsteps of the more conservative Gulf countries, where eating, drinking or smoking in public during the Ramadan fasting hours before sundown can result in penalties up to a month in jail or a fine of $350.
In the Indonesian province of Aceh, in north Sumatra, such offences are punishable by flogging.
Such laws apply to nationals and foreigners alike.
In the southern governorate of Aswan, 150 Egyptians were detained and charged with the misdemeanor of publicly breaking the fast.
Many were also arrested in the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada. The governor ordered all cafes and restaurants closed during the day despite the city’s popularity tourist destination.
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).
Human rights criticism
In response to the recent clampdowns, the human rights movement Copts for Egypt launched Monday a counter campaign under the title "Save the Homeland," which lashed out at the arrests and called them unconstitutional, its spokesman Samuel al-Ashay told Al Arabiya.
"We issued a statement to the Minister of Interior calling upon him to investigate the arrests and put those in charge on trial," he said. "They violated personal freedom and will end up creating another Taliban in Egypt."
Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, called the arrests unconstitutional.
"There is no law that prohibits eating or drinking during the day in Ramadan," he told Al Arabiya. "Every citizen has the right to eat and drink in Ramadan without being harassed."
Eid viewed the arrests as indicative of the religious fanaticism of police officers and accused the Ministry of Interior of being accomplice for not taking the necessary measures against the perpetrators.
"This means that the government is implicitly endorsing turning Egypt into a religious state,l" he added.
Eid pointed out that such a campaign was proposed two years ago in Cairo but was met with failure.
This campaign could trigger sectarian sedition in Egypt since there is a chance the police might arrest a Christian, said lawyer Maged Hanna.
"There is also a possibility that the police arrest a Muslim who cannot fast for any reason," he told Al Arabiya. "Plus, there is no law that prohibits that in Egypt."
Hanna condemned police raids on cafes and restaurants and pointed out that breaking the fast ‘in public’ is an elusive concept.
"Those who eat in a restaurant or a café are not in fact eating in public. They are in a closed place and not seen by everyone. The expression 'in public' is very confusing and it is eventually up to the officers' whims," he explained.
On the other hand, religious fundamentalists welcomed the campaign, which they viewed as the first step towards applying sharia, Islamic law, in Egypt.
Muslims have to fast in Ramadan and they are not allowed to break the fast without a good reason, said Adel al-Sayed, deputy chairman of the religious non-governmental organization Ansar al-Sunnah (Supporters of the Prophet's Teachings).
"Breaking the fast without a reason has to be punished," he told Al Arabiya. "What the police did was the right thing. They are promoting virtue and prohibiting vice."
Sayed added that if people break the fast or commit any sin, like drinking alcohol, inside their houses only God can see them and will punish them. However, if they do it in public, the guardians of the nation—represented by the police—have the right to impose law and order.
"People who do that show disrespect for the holy month. Even if some Muslims have a good reason for not fasting, like illness or traveling, they still should not do that in public," he said.
In response to rights organizations' statements about the arrests being illegal, Sayed argued that eating and drinking publicly in Ramadan falls under the category of violating public decency, which is punishable under Egyptian law.
(Translated from the Arabic by Sonia Farid)