CAIRO: Egyptians are protesting against an alleged plan to install surveillance cameras in thousands of mosques throughout the country.
Egypt’s Ministry of Islamic Endowments denied the existence of such a plan on Monday, but the reports have caused ripples throughout the local media and the blogosphere.
Critics say the security forces are abusing their power by violating people’s privacy in their efforts to fight terrorism and extremism.
Responding to a public outcry, ministry spokesman Sheikh Shawqi Abdel Latif told several media outlets that cameras have been set up in one mosque alone – the Sayyida Nafisa Mosque in Cairo – with the declared purpose of ensuring people do not steal money from charity boxes, rather than to monitor religious sermons.
But rights organizations doubt the true intentions of this move, and are concerned the government is employing surveillance cameras for political purposes to detect extreme preachers.
“It’s a violation of the constitution, Hafez Abu Saeda, secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights told The Media Line. “You can’t put cameras inside a mosque to monitor the people and say that it’s to see if people are stealing money. That’s a very poor justification. It’s an attempt to monitor the prayers and this violates the privacy of the people.
Abu Saeda said this is part of a series of measures the government in Egypt has taken to place mosques under tighter government control. This includes issuing licenses for preachers who deliver Friday sermons, which are widely attended by the public and are often used to relay political messages.
“It will keep people away from the mosque, Abu Saeda said. “It’s against freedom of thought and freedom of religion and violates the rights of the people.
Similar to other countries in the Middle East, there are concerns in Egypt that mosques are becoming hotbeds for extremists, terrorist organizations and government opposition groups.
The ruling National Democratic Party is especially concerned about the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist opposition movement, which has been outlawed since 1954 but enjoys significant support among the Egyptian population.
The decision to set up cameras is being linked to a speech made recently by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, following the murder of six Copts in January.
Mubarak held both Christian and Muslim authorities responsible for creating an atmosphere of intolerance.
“We’re facing strange things in our society that are pushing people to ignorance and intolerance, Mubarak said. “This is being nurtured by the lack of enlightened preaching from members of Al-Azhar and from the Church.
But Abu Saeda said any means employed to protect the population should not violate rights.
“Egypt has suffered from these movements, which have targeted innocent people, foreign visitors and Christian Copts, Abu Saeda said. “We agree that the government must take measures to protect society, but respecting people’s human rights is not against security measures.
Ali Laban, a member of parliament aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood brought up the issue in parliament and accused the government of spying on worshippers, saying the measure “gives legitimacy to the security forces to diminish the honor and status of preachers and religious scholars in Egypt.
“The Endowments Ministry has gone beyond its missionary role and has taken on the role of policeman, he continued. “We demand to cancel this decision immediately.
According to official government statistics, Egypt accommodates around 104,000 mosques, but has appointed only 48,000 preachers. The significance of this is that many mosques have preachers who are not on a government payroll, and who are not subject to government guidelines in their teachings.
Abdel Latif acknowledged the weight that the ministry attached to mosque sermons and the impact they could have on public opinion but denied the government was trying to control what was being said.
“The Endowments Ministry does not monitor anyone and doesn’t place conditions on sermons, but there is a general sequence and moderate sermons that the imam of a mosque must abide by, he said. “The mosque sermon is one of the most critical ways to communicate to the masses. The ministry selects imams and those delivering sermons before they get up on the podium, so we don’t need to have cameras. “Developing the religious sermons is one of the main objectives of the ministry but we won’t do this through cameras, Abdel Latif assured. “We’re not inspection courts that will scrutinize whatever the sermon deliverers say.
“Whatever has been said about these cameras is not true, he added. “It’s all just unfounded rumors.