Egypt for All Egyptians, a cultural event opposing religious discrimination that was scheduled to take place on Friday in Cairo’s al-Azhar Park, was cancelled at the last minute for ‘security reasons,’ said organizers.
The Park administration retracted their approval of the event only 48 hours before it was scheduled to take place due to objections from security agencies. According to the organizers of the event, no further explanation was provided.
The event, organized by Egyptians against Religious Discrimination Group (MARED) in collaboration with Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi, aimed to promote tolerance between Muslims and Christians in Egypt through a day full of different cultural festivities such as poetry readings, art workshops, book exhibitions, a puppet theater and a number of musical acts. The main goal of the festival was to condemn the violations of the rights of Egyptians based on religious beliefs.
All the efforts to bring that event to life, according to the event organizers, were donated on a volunteer basis.
“The stand that the government took [against this festival] is peppered with contradictions,” said Mohamed Mounir Megahed, MARED spokesperson. “Some of the government newspapers wrote about our festival in a favorable light, but the security agencies felt the event as a threat and so eliminated it.”
Megahed added that the cancellation of the event indicates that sectarian issues are a matter of state security.
“[State security] monopolizes this sphere, and does not allow anyone else to get involved,” said Megahed.
The festival, the organizers explained, was given the go ahead two months ago without any problems when the event program, booklets and details were given to the security agencies for approval. There was no obvious reason for the sudden withdrawal of this permission.
The event organizers met with al-Azhar Park security administration in the hopes of solving the situation, but their efforts were in vain.
“We met the park head of security, Salah Sarhan, and he did not give us any clear explanation for the cancellation,” said Sarah Naguib, coordinator of the festival. “[Sarhan] told us again that the festival was cancelled due to security reasons but offered no further explanation.”
“When the security bodies insist on cancelling an event like this, it raises a million questions about their overall attitude toward such events,” Naguib pointed out.
The organizers tried to change the venue, but due to the short period of time they were given, no other venue was available for the event. “Because of the stigma of cancellation in al-Azhar park, other venues told us that they wouldn’t be able to hold the event in their premises,” Naguib added.
“When [the security agencies] weaken any progress against religious discrimination, they are allowing the forces of sectarianism, that aim to harm Egypt, to become more powerful,” Megahed pointed out.
According to Megahed, MARED has faced security intervention before on many occasions, including the cancellation of their first seminar back in 2007 and their first convention in 2008, which was supposed to be held at the Journalists’ Syndicate but had to take place elsewhere.
The cancellation serves to highlight the issues MARED hoped to tackle at the festival.
“I believe that the message behind the event has already been delivered,” says Naguib. “This event was born as an idea in a simple Facebook status, but young people were enthusiastic in planning it and music bands were calling me to join in the event at no charge. Journalists and bloggers helped as well. The festivities were cancelled, but the idea behind it is still a success.”
Egyptian authorities have been recently growing more concerned about Muslim-Christian relations following a series of protest staged by some Salafi groups denouncing the Coptic Church for allegedly keeping hostage a Christian woman whom they claim has converted to Islam. State and Church officials have vehemently denies such allegations.
Authorities have shut down dozens of Islamist TV stations for allegedly inciting religious hatred.
Egyptian secular activists, however, have long voiced concerns on what they perceive as the state’s complicity in rising violence against Egypt's Christian minority.
Earlier this year, MARED issued a statement condemning “state officials for remaining silent about [sectarian clashes],” which amounts to “bestowing a kind of endorsement and support” for perpetrators of sectarian violence, according to the group.
“In sectarian-related incidents, security forces have always absconded from the crime scenes, thus allowing burning and looting of properties owned by Egyptian Christians,” the statement said.
The statement also blamed the judicial authorities for failing to reduce sectarian tension in the country where Christians comprise nearly eight percent of Egypt’s 80 million people.
Three Muslims are currently trialed before a State Security Court for killing six Christians and one Muslim guard in the southern city of Naga Hammadi in January, in one of Egypt’s bloodiest sectarian-related crimes in years.