Egypt has a general blasphemy law that prohibits disparaging “the heavenly religions.” While the law ostensibly targets no religion in particular, in practice it is usually used against religious minorities and those who blaspheme Islam. Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority has particularly borne a disproportionate weight of blasphemy prosecutions. In addition to the relatively aggressive efforts of Egyptian authorities to prosecute such cases, blasphemers and atheists must also contend with social pressure, coercion, and the risk of vigilante violence.

History of Blasphemy & Apostasy Laws

Historically a center of the Islamic world, Egypt was long governed under the precepts of Islamic law. When the British colonized in the nineteenth century, there was resistance to secularization in all facets of life, including in the legal realm. Decades after Egypt gained independence, a blasphemy law was enacted in response to inter-faith violence, but it is usually used against Christians and the non-religious. Because of the structure of the legal system, apostates from Islam can be subject to civil death.


The Islamization of Egypt occurred relatively early, in the mid-seventh century, when the Rashidun caliphate captured it from the Byzantines. From then on, it became one of the centers of the Islamic world, eventually falling into Ottoman hands in the sixteenth century. A period of British colonial rule in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave way to the establishment of an independent Egyptian state. Today, Islam is its official religion, but the nation is home to a significant Coptic Christian minority as well.

Development of Blasphemy Laws

Prior to the nineteenth century, Egyptian criminal law came from two principal sources: qanuns—“periodic and piecemeal criminal legislation”—and Islamic religious precepts which, while not written into a penal code, were followed in the absence of a clear distinction between religion and state. This was the case under Ottoman rule as well as after Egypt gained de facto independence from the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century. Under this system, blasphemous utterances against Islam could be met with execution, as was often the case throughout the Ottoman Empire.

In the late nineteenth century, Egypt came under colonial British control. This began an era of European influence on Egypt’s legal system, including the adoption of a national court system and the nation’s first secular penal code. However, the tension between secularization (largely represented by the West) and Islamic traditionalism never dissolved. While Egypt remained under the thumb of colonial Britain, traditionalist elements in society resisted many of these “modernizing” forces. Colonial occupation “gave rise to Islamic legal activism” and, eventually, the formation of fundamentalist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, even amid this influence, laws hostile to blasphemy and apostasy persisted, including one 1920 law which stipulated that a husband had no responsibility to a wife who apostatized.

Nonetheless, some of this secularizing influence stayed with Egypt. The penal code of 1937, formed when Britain still exercised de facto control over the country, still largely provides the basis for law in Egypt today. Matters of “personal status,” however, are resolved according to religion—issues like marriage and inheritance. Those without a religion are unrecognized in these matters, and apostates from Islam can therefore experience civil death. Likewise, Egyptian courts have ruled that apostasy or conversion from Islam is “not allowed.”

Egypt’s contemporary constitution enshrines Islam as the state religion and even identifies “principles” of Islamic religious law as the “main source of legislation.” The current “blasphemy law” punishes—with prison sentences of up to five years—“disdaining and contempting any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto.” Therefore, at least in its text, the law does not single out blasphemy against Islam specifically. It was introduced in 1981 in the wake of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims, ostensibly to protect Christians and other religious minorities. In practice, Muslims have been only rarely prosecuted according to its provisions; the vast majority charged and convicted, in fact, have been Christian.

Recent Developments

Today, a struggle between countervailing forces of Islamism and secularism continues. The state continues to use the blasphemy law against people who express views which are critical, or construed to be critical, of Islam, especially atheists and Coptic Christians, and it continues to resist efforts from liberal human rights organizers to repeal or reform the law. However, an unsuccessful attempt to repeal the law was made in 2016, introduced as a bill into parliament which received support from roughly 20% of members. President Sisi has been an opponent of political Islam even as human rights violations and blasphemy convictions have continued; liberal and secular political parties exist, but in recent years, many have lost their independence from Egypt’s authoritarian government, turning away from democratic ideals and exerting essentially no influence over Egyptian politics. In 2018, new laws further restricting online freedom of expression were enacted.

Cases of Persecution in Egypt
Activist Anas Hassan given three years in prison, fined ~$19,000 for atheist Facebook page
Activist Ahmed Harkan and pregnant wife assaulted, brutalized by police; miscarriage results
Al-Azhar student Kareem Amer expelled, imprisoned three years; tortured for blasphemy, atheism
Egyptian Coptic Alber Saber imprisoned after sharing satirical film on Islam
Ayman Yusef Mansur sentenced to three years in prison with hard labor for Facebook blasphemy
Copts Ayman Rida Hanna and Mounir Massad Hanna imprisoned for blasphemous social media video
Bishoy Kameel fired, imprisoned, and beaten for fabricated blasphemous Facebook posts
Schoolteacher Dimiana Abdel-Nour accused of blasphemy by students, arrested
Prominent secularist professor and writer Farag Foda assassinated
Poet and journalist Fatima Naoot given three years for criticizing Eid "massacre"
Coptic teacher Gad Younan and students mock ISIS, imprisoned for blasphemy, fined, exiled
Coptic 17-year-old Gamal Abdou Massoud given three years in prison for blasphemy
Pro-Islamic-reform TV show canceled, host arrested for blasphemy
Student Karim al-Banna imprisoned for announcing atheism online
Activist Maikel Nabil Sanad subjected to official blasphemy investigation, self-exiles from Egypt
Christian school secretary Makram Diab gets 6-year sentence for asking "blasphemous" question
Sheikh Mizo teaches tolerance, criticizes scripture, receives 5-year sentence
Comedian Mohamed Ashraf arrested on blasphemy charges for mocking Qur'an radio show
Activist Mustafa Abdel-Nabi sentenced to three years for atheistic Facebook posts
Coptic children Nabil Nagy Rizk and Mina Nady Farag arrested for blasphemy
Author Naguib Mahfouz suffers assassination attempt for blasphemous writings
Leading liberal theologian and writer Nasr Abu Zayd forced into exile
Coptic lawyer Roman Murad Saad given year in prison, hard labor for "ridiculing" Quran
Popular Islam-critical YouTuber Sherif Gaber arrested trying to escape Egypt
Student Youssef Hani arrested for supporting France amid blasphemy controversy