Law, the State, and Public Order: Regulating Religion in Contemporary Egypt

Date01 September 2018
Published date01 September 2018
Law, the State, and Public Order: Regulating
Religion in Contemporary Egypt
Mona Oraby
A substantial scholarship has studied the extent to which states across the political
and geographic spectrums rely on legal, bureaucratic, and judicial institutions to
govern religion. However, a deeper inquiry into the mechanisms through which
regulation occurs has yet been achieved. This article foregrounds conversion,
understood as mobility between social groups in which belief and sincerity may
figure but is not reducible to either, to observe these dynamics. Through an anal-
ysis of Egyptian jurisprudence on the right to change religion as well as inter-
views with complainants and litigators, the article challenges widespread
assumptions about who and what constitute the regulatory field. It also shows
how religious difference is produced in the legal-bureaucratic encounter. By
accounting for institutions that are not typically considered part of the regulatory
field nor thought to be bound by the strictures of legal positivism, this article fur-
ther occasions a rethinking of the public–private distinction within critiques of
Astrikingly tall talkative man in his early sixties, Maher al-Goh-
ary, nervously wiped the rim of his soda can before popping the
lid. Al-Gohary is one of two Muslim-born Egyptians who raised
administrative suits seeking legal conversion to Coptic Orthodoxy;
the administrative judiciary, called Majlis al-Dawla, rejected the first
suit and denied the other.
Both cases roused profound national
For offering critical feedback and sage advice on various drafts of this article, I
thank the participants of the Law, Politics, and Religion in Muslim-Majority States Work-
shop at Simon Fraser University (and Tamir Moustafa, Michael Peletz, and Jeffrey Sachs
in particular), the participants of the APSA-POMEPS Middle East and North Africa
Research and Publication Conference in Tunis (and Nathan Brown and Steven Heyde-
mann in particular), Pinky Hota, Austin Sarat, as well as the editors and anonymous
reviewers for the Law & Society Review. The Buffett Institute for Global Studies and The
Graduate School at Northwestern University made possible the fieldwork for this study.
Generous research funding was also provided by the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Reli-
gion in International Affairs through the Politics of Religious Freedom Project, co-
directed by Peter Danchin, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Saba Mahmood, and Winnifred
Fallers Sullivan. Residence at the Center for Law, Society, and Culture at Indiana Univer-
sity Maurer School of Law as the 2016–2017 Jerome Hall Postdoctoral Fellow afforded
me the time to write an initial draft and to present my findings.
Please direct all correspondence to Mona Oraby; Department of Law, Jurispru-
dence, and Social Thought, Amherst College, PO Box 5000, Amherst, MA 01002-5000;
Court of Administrative Justice no. 35647, Judicial Year 61, 29 January 2008; Court of
Administrative Justice no. 53717, Judicial Year 62, 13 June 2009; and Court of Administrative
Law & Society Review, Volume 52, Number 3 (2018)
©2018 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
controversy over the Islamic identity of the Egyptian state because
of its simultaneous constitutional commitments to religious free-
dom and legal equality.
Al-Gohary recalled his first appearance in
court as we sat in a crowded Cairo cafe:
The court officer called out “Maher Ahmed al-Mu‘tassimbillah
Gohary who has raised a suit against [Interior Minister] Habib
al-Adly.” Everyone hates Habib al-Adly so as I passed they
wished me luck. But then when I went inside and people found
out that I raised a case to change the information on the identity
card from Muslim to Christian, the whole world changed. I
found that all the attorneys who had cases on the docket regis-
tered their identity cards in solidarity with Habib al-Adly to
oppose me [They requested permissive intervention on behalf
of the defendants].
I found myself in a difficult situation… The judge requested
from me, from them you know [referring to his attorneys], to
bring a scientific certificate (shahada ma‘maliyya). This of course
put us in an impossible situation (‘u’da fi al-munshar): Who here
would give me a certificate of baptism so that I can present it to
[the judge]? When I went to get a baptism certificate from the
Archbishop of Cyprus—at this time I was in Cyprus for a whole
year—I had left Egypt. [It was] an accredited certificate (shahada
mu‘tamida). We got it and translated it and presented it to [the
judge]. The [state’s] attorneys saw it and said “No, no! We want
a certificate from Egypt!” And I asked, “Why do you want a cer-
tificate from Egypt? Here’s a certificate. And here I am in front
Justice no. 22566, Judicial Year 63, 13 June 2009. The first complainant, Muhammad Hegazy,
was arrested and detained in December 2013 on what most civil society groups suggest were
bogus charges. When in 2008 the Court of Administrative Justice refused to accept Hegazy’s
petition against the Interior Ministry, allegedly because of the lack of an administrative decision,
Hegazy took up work as a journalist in Egypt for various Coptic satellite channels. He was
arrested in 2013 on charges of spreading false news, endangering national security, and insult-
ing religion, the latter of which is a crime under Article 98 (f ) of the Egyptian Penal Code.
When Hegazy was released from prison in July 2016, he announced through social media that
he had returned to Islam. See Al-Jazeera,“Ba‘d ithartho al-jadl bi tahwilho li al-misihiyya . . . hijazi
ya‘ud li al-islam” [After the controversy raised by turning to Christianity . . . Hegazy returns to
Islam], 6 August 2016, accessed 1 September 2016,
and-international/2016/08/201685181942969917.htm. Accusations of defaming religion sharply
increased after the 25 January 2011 uprising. See Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Besieg-
ing Freedom of Thought: Defamation of Religion Cases Two Years After the Revolution, August 2014,
accessed 4 September 2014,
Muhammad Hegazy’s case was widely publicized in Egyptian and international
news media. See, for example, Al-Arabiyya,“Walid misriyy yuhadid bi qatl ibnho al-lathi
a‘tanaq al-misihiyya itha lam yarja‘” [An Egyptian father whose son converted to Christianity
threatens him with death if he does not return], 26 January 2008, accessed 19 March
2014, Maher al-Gohary’s case
likewise initiated a media firestorm. See, for example, Christopher Landau, “Egyptian
Christian’s Recognition Struggle,” BBC, 13 February 2009, accessed 19 March 2014,
Oraby 575

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