CAIRO — The Passiles café in downtown Cairo is either a den of atheists or a site of devil worshipping — depending on who you ask.
Just before noon on Sunday, Egyptian government officials flanked by police raided Passiles and boarded its doors. The café was popular with customers who could step away from the bustling Cairo stress to sip tea and while the hours away. But many in the police didn't believe it was entirely innocent. In an interview with the Mada Masr news site, local Police Chief Gamal Mohie said, "There was no sign reading 'atheists' café outside, as nobody would put up such a public announcement. However, it was popularly known as a place for Satan worship, rituals and dances. There were also Satanic drawings at the entrance."
BuzzFeed News visited the site, and saw a small swastika spray-painted outside the front door but no other indication of "satanic drawings." No one, said locals, ever knew it as a place for atheists, devil worshippers, or any other group.
"It's a popular downtown spot, but there is really nothing special about it. That's the thing about Egypt today — you don't know why one place gets raided and another place doesn't, everyone is on edge, everyone feels like they are in danger from authorities," said Mohamed Walid, a Cairo University student who frequented Passiles. He, like others, said they were now avoiding the area.
"It's obvious that the state has gone crazy. They are just totally against anyone different," said Hossam, a 34-year-old programmer, who asked that BuzzFeed News withhold his last name out of fear of arrest for his beliefs, which he describes as more agnostic than atheist. "The details don't matter. Sisi doesn't want anyone different here, he wants everyone to be singing the same song."
Egyptian activists said that the announcement by police that the café had been used by atheists was indicative of an increasing crackdown on the group by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government.
"What we see now is a campaign to arrest atheists, or those the regime say don't believe in god," said Amr Abdel Rahman, a member of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "It's part of a broader campaign by the Egyptian government against all those who are different."
Earlier this month, Dar al Ifta, a wing of the Egyptian government that issues religious edicts, announced that there are 866 atheists in Egypt, an astoundingly precise figure considering that there are no exact figures for the population of Egypt, Cairo, or the number of Muslims and Christians living in the populous Arab state. The announcement was meant to show that Egypt's atheists were not only relatively small, but that they were, quite literally, numbered.
"It's crazy. People who are atheists in Egypt almost never talk about it — it is just something they quietly believe," said Walid. "If you are atheist and you heard this announcement, it was like the state saying, 'We are coming for you next.'"
While Egypt has no specific laws against atheism, one established decades ago during the rule of former Egyptian President Sadat punishes defaming, insulting, or ridiculing the heavenly (Abrahamic) religions with a prison sentence of up to five years and fines. The law was originally established to protect Egypt's Christian minority, but has since been used for a multitude of other purposes.
Rahman said that from 2012–2013, his group documented 63 cases in which individuals were arrested under the law and charged with atheism. He does not have figures for the last few years.
Rahman said the regime felt the need to control to "Egyptian street" after what they saw as several years of chaos. He said the regime also wanted to preempt Islamist groups from saying that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership from claiming that Sisi's government allowed a loosening of morals.
"They believe that morals, or controlling behavior of people, will help stabilize the street more than anything. That means a crackdown on atheists, gay people, anyone they see as different."
The last year in Egypt has seen a crackdown on LGBT groups, which has led to many activists going into hiding or leaving the country.
Maged Atef is a journalist based in Cairo.
Contact Maged Atef at email@example.com.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
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