Plenary speech on recent attacks on religious minorities in Egypt and in Malaysia

Marietje Schaake – Mr President, in the week of Egyptian Orthodox Christmas, an attack took place killing and wounding 20 Coptic Egyptians. Although the attack can be seen as a criminal act of individuals, various other troubling incidents require our ongoing focus on respect for all minorities in Egypt. Violence and hatred cannot be accepted in the name of religion. People have a universal right to freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. Ethnic and religious diversity asks for a vigilant society that is able to reconcile differences in open debate, a society where people of any background or conviction know that their freedoms are guaranteed. An open society can only be realised when the separation of religion and state is implemented in the constitution and throughout the system of government. Security measures cannot be the only means to manage a pluralist society. Yet state emergency laws have been in place in Egypt for the past 28 years. A free debate is perhaps the most powerful medicine against extremism and violence. Therefore, freedom of expression, both online and offline, can be seen as the Egyptian Government’s best tool to resolve tensions in society. It is therefore very difficult to understand or accept that around 30 activists, politicians and bloggers were arrested by government forces while travelling to the southern Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi to express their condolences to the families of those killed during the sectarian violence. The arrests are a particularly striking example of what has become a pattern of the Egyptian Government’s interference in citizens’ rights to freedom of expression. Something is desperately wrong when people are treated like criminals merely for attempting to show sympathy and solidarity with fellow countrymen. In too many cases, the argument of maintaining public order is abused. Since 2008, Egyptians have been unable to get an unregistered phone line, but the control is not total. New rules are now in force, under which users of Wi-Fi have to pay for a connection, for which they need to provide an e-mail address to have a password and a username sent. This allows for active control of users by the government. Moreover, a draft law is under debate in the parliament about net regulation, providing for prison sentences for ‘publication of multimedia content without government permission’. Yet the Egyptian Constitution says, ‘freedom of expression or freedom of opinion is guaranteed. Every individual has the right to express his opinion and to publicise it verbally or in writing or by photography or by other means within the limits of the law’. Self-criticism and constructive criticism are the guarantee for the safety of the national structure. I urge the Egyptian Government to refrain from introducing emergency laws limiting fundamental freedoms in light of the sectarian tensions present. An adequate response to crimes committed in the name of religion is only appropriate. However, this should not be used as a reason to repress the population as a whole, with laws limiting free speech and expression. Only when fundamental freedoms are safeguarded by the Constitution and all layers of legislation are free will an open society in Egypt be possible. The Egyptian Government should lead its citizens on this road to freedom, and Europe should be its strongest partner in this.