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Egyptian identification card controversy

Egyptian identification card controversy

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The Egyptian identification card controversy is a series of events, beginning in the 1990s, that created a de facto state of disenfranchisement for Egyptian Bahá'ís
Bahá'í Faith
The Bahá'í Faith is a monotheistic religion founded by Bahá'u'lláh in 19th-century Persia, emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind. There are an estimated five to six million Bahá'ís around the world in more than 200 countries and territories....

, atheist
Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities...

s, agnostic
Agnosticism is the view that the truth value of certain claims—especially claims about the existence or non-existence of any deity, but also other religious and metaphysical claims—is unknown or unknowable....

s, and other Egyptians who did not identify themselves as Muslim, Christian, or Jewish on government identity document
Identity document
An identity document is any document which may be used to verify aspects of a person's personal identity. If issued in the form of a small, mostly standard-sized card, it is usually called an identity card...


During the period of disenfranchisement, the people affected, who were mostly Bahá'ís, were unable to obtain the necessary government documents to have rights in their country unless they lied about their religion, which conflicted with Bahá'í religious principle. Those affected could not obtain identification cards, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage or divorce certificates, or passports. Without those documents, they could not be employed, educated, treated in hospitals, or vote, among other things.

As of August, 2009, the situation is apparently resolved, following a protracted legal process. Identification documents may now list a dash in place of one of the three recognized religions. Under this compromise solution, the Bahá'í Faith and other beliefs are still unrecognized by the government — Islam, Christianity, and Judaism remain the only recognized religions. The first identification cards were issued to two Bahá'ís under the new policy on August 8, 2009.

Historical background

Main articles: Religion in Egypt: Unrecognised beliefs and religions, Bahá'í Faith in Egypt
Bahá'í Faith in Egypt
The Bahá'í Faith in Egypt has a history over a century old. Perhaps the first Bahá'ís arrive in 1863. Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the religion, was himself briefly in Egypt in 1868 when on his way to imprisonment in `Akká. The first Egyptians were converts by 1896...

, and Persecution of Bahá'ís in Egypt

Similarly to Iran and several other Muslim-majority countries , the Egyptian government requires that its citizens list their religion on government identity documents. Egyptian law recognizes Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

 and Judaism
Judaism ) is the "religion, philosophy, and way of life" of the Jewish people...

, and provides for some measure of tolerance for these minority groups. Of those who do not identify themselves with one of the three government-recognized religions of Egypt,
the largest group of Egyptians with unrecognized beliefs is believed to be the Bahá'ís
Bahá'í Faith
The Bahá'í Faith is a monotheistic religion founded by Bahá'u'lláh in 19th-century Persia, emphasizing the spiritual unity of all humankind. There are an estimated five to six million Bahá'ís around the world in more than 200 countries and territories....

. Although reliable statistics are not available, the number of Bahá'ís in Egypt has been estimated at about 2,000 as of 2006. Bahá'í institutions and community activities have been illegal under Egyptian law since 1960 by Law 263 at the decree of then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser
Gamal Abdel Nasser
Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein was the second President of Egypt from 1956 until his death. A colonel in the Egyptian army, Nasser led the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 along with Muhammad Naguib, the first president, which overthrew the monarchy of Egypt and Sudan, and heralded a new period of...

. Egyptian Bahá'í have suffered from continual persecution, including the government confiscation of Bahá'í centres, libraries, and cemeteries, and have been charged with apostasy. Although few Egyptians publicly identify as atheists or agnostics, they faced similar difficulties.

National identification cards

All Egyptian citizens must carry national identification cards, which must be presented for any type of government service, such as medical care in a public hospital or processing for a property title or deed as well as to obtain employment, education, banking services, and many other important private transactions. ID cards are also required to pass through police checkpoints, and individuals without such cards are accordingly deprived of freedom of movement. The national identification cards contained a field for religion, with only Islam, Christianity and Judaism acceptable as a religion.

Changing Religion

Changing religion on one's card is extremely difficult, especially for those who are converting from Islam. The Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need
Aid to the Church in Need
' describes itself as "an international pastoral aid organization of the Catholic Church, which yearly offers financial support to more than 5,000 projects worldwide...

, claims that conversion to Christianity remains prohibited in practise even though Article 46 of the Constitution says that the state guarantees freedom of belief and religion. Therefore, according to the Vital Statistics Office, a Muslim who is baptised a Christian is still a Muslim. This means that a former Muslim cannot change his or her identity papers to show a new religion or name. The charity claims that the lack of a law on conversion from Islam to another religion leaves the matter in the hands of judges who must choose between Sharia and the principle of equality of all citizens before the law.

In 2008 Christian convert Mohammed Higazi was not allowed to have his identity changed to register his change of religion from Islam to Christianity. During a trial to have his religion changed on his identity papers, the opposing lawyer made death threats against Mr Higazi for converting to Christianity. The judge made no objection to these statements and expressed his loathing of the accused because of his conversion. The judge stated that he would never let Higazy be registered as a Christian. He defended his decision by saying that Islam is the principal religion in Egypt.

Effect of computerized identification cards

Major hardship began in the 1990s when the government modernized the electronic processing of national identification cards. Prior to this, Bahá'ís were sometimes able to obtain identification documents from a sympathetic clerk willing to issue a card that left the religious-affiliation slot blank, listed religion as "other" or a dash, or listed "Bahá'í." Bahá'ís have long refused as a matter of religious principle to falsely list themselves as Muslim, Christian, or Jew.

Electronic processing locked out the possibility of an unlisted religion, or any religious affiliation other than Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. Consequently, adherents of any other faith (or no faith) became unable to obtain any government identification documents (such as national identification cards, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage or divorce certificates, or passports) necessary to exercise their rights in their country unless they lied about their religion.

Without documents, Bahá'ís could not be employed, educated, treated in hospitals, withdraw their own money from a bank, purchase food from state stores, or vote, among other hardships.
Bahá'ís became virtual non-citizens, without access to employment, education, and all government services, including hospital care. A number of Bahá'í young people are without valid ID cards, a situation that has forced them out of universities and the army, placing them on the margins of society.


In the 1990s, the Egyptian government announced it would be upgrading its identification card system by issuing computer
A computer is a programmable machine designed to sequentially and automatically carry out a sequence of arithmetic or logical operations. The particular sequence of operations can be changed readily, allowing the computer to solve more than one kind of problem...

ized cards that would be less susceptible to forgery. This, the government indicated, would help to combat militant Islamic unrest, and improve data collection and access. The government indicated the shift to the new system would be gradual, but set January 2005 as the deadline for everyone to have the new cards — a deadline which was apparently extended to 2006.

The system had apparently undergone modifications since it was set up. In 2003, for example, four Bahá'ís sought and obtained new computerized cards in which the religious affiliation field listed "other" — a designation to which the Bahá'í community does not object. More recently, however, the software had been updated so that only one of the three recognized religions can be entered. If the field is left blank, the computer refuses to issue the card.

The Bahá'í community of Egypt had approached the government on numerous occasions to plead for a simple change in the programming, if not the law, so that they could be issued valid ID cards under the new system. Such pleas, however, had been met with rejection and refusal.

Accordingly, all members of the Egyptian Bahá'í community faced the prospect of being left wholly without proper ID cards by 2006 — a situation in which they would essentially be denied all rights of citizenship, and, indeed, would be faced with the inability even to withdraw their own money from the bank, get medical treatment at public hospitals, or purchase food from state stores.

As the new cards were being issued, the government had asked young people to start coming in for the new cards, and a number of Bahá'í youth had accordingly been stripped of paper identification cards. Once stripped of ID cards, the Bahá'í youth essentially become prisoners in their own homes, since the authorities often set up evening checkpoints to verify the identity of young men. Individuals without proper ID face detention. Likewise, young people without ID cards are denied entrance and continuing enrolment in colleges and universities
A university is an institution of higher education and research, which grants academic degrees in a variety of subjects. A university is an organisation that provides both undergraduate education and postgraduate education...

, as well as service in the armed forces.

Court case

On April 4, 2006, a three-judge panel of the Egyptian Administrative Court upheld the right of a Bahá'í couple to lawfully state their religion on their ID cards. The cards had been confiscated by the government after the couple sought to have their passports updated to include their daughters. The couple, Husam Izzat Musa and Ranya Enayat Rushdy, sued, stating that the confiscation of the cards was illegal under Egypt’s Constitution and international law. The court ruled for the couple, citing existing precedents and Islamic jurisprudence
Fiqh is Islamic jurisprudence. Fiqh is an expansion of the code of conduct expounded in the Quran, often supplemented by tradition and implemented by the rulings and interpretations of Islamic jurists....

 that allow for the right of non-Muslims
A , is a non-Muslim subject of a state governed in accordance with sharia law. Linguistically, the word means "one whose responsibility has been taken". This has to be understood in the context of the definition of state in Islam...

 to live in Muslim lands "without any of them being forced to change what they believe in." and ordered the civil registry to issue new documents that properly identify them as Bahá'ís.

The court wrote:
In the aftermath of the court ruling, various news media in Egypt and the Arab world
Arab world
The Arab world refers to Arabic-speaking states, territories and populations in North Africa, Western Asia and elsewhere.The standard definition of the Arab world comprises the 22 states and territories of the Arab League stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Arabian Sea in the...

 reported on the ruling. Human rights groups in Egypt were supportive of the decision, while representatives of the Al-Azhar University
Al-Azhar University
Al-Azhar University is an educational institute in Cairo, Egypt. Founded in 970~972 as a madrasa, it is the chief centre of Arabic literature and Islamic learning in the world. It is the oldest degree-granting university in Egypt. In 1961 non-religious subjects were added to its curriculum.It is...

 and government were negative. Newspapers in Bahrain
' , officially the Kingdom of Bahrain , is a small island state near the western shores of the Persian Gulf. It is ruled by the Al Khalifa royal family. The population in 2010 stood at 1,214,705, including 235,108 non-nationals. Formerly an emirate, Bahrain was declared a kingdom in 2002.Bahrain is...

, Kuwait
The State of Kuwait is a sovereign Arab state situated in the north-east of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia. It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the south at Khafji, and Iraq to the north at Basra. It lies on the north-western shore of the Persian Gulf. The name Kuwait is derived from the...

 and elsewhere in the region also wrote about the case, with many going into long explanations about the Bahá'í Faith. Some statements by other organizations after the initial ruling include:
  • IRIN, a news service of the United Nations serving the region, wrote, "Human rights activists have welcomed a landmark ruling by the Administrative Court recognizing the right of Egyptian Bahais to have their religion acknowledged on official documents."
  • Al Arabiya
    Al Arabiya
    Al Arabiya is a Pan-Arabist Saudi-owned Arabic-language television news channel. Launched on March 3, 2003, the channel is based in Dubai Media City, United Arab Emirates, and is majority-owned by the Saudi broadcaster Middle East Broadcasting Center ....

    , an online service of the television network, carried the headline, "They were forcing them to register themselves as Muslims; An Egyptian court recognizes the Bahá’í religion despite refusal by the Azhar."
  • Al-Watan (Homeland)
    Al-Watan (Kuwait)
    The Al-Watan is a Kuwaiti Arabic language daily published by the Al-Watan publishing house. The editor in chief was Muhammad 'Abed al-Qader al-Jasem until 2005, when Sheikh Khalifa Ali al Khalifa al Sabah, a member of the Kuwaiti ruling family, took over....

    , a newspaper of Kuwait, carried the headline: “They described it as the Greatest Setback; Al-Azhar scholars demand that the Egyptian judiciary review the ruling of acknowledging ‘Al-Bahá’íyyah’ [the Bahá'í Faith] as a religion.” The lead of the article says: "A number of Al-Azhar scholars condemned the ruling of the Egyptian judiciary that acknowledged the Bahá’í creed, stressing that it is considered a great legal setback and a tragedy that must be drawn back, emphasizing that Bahá’ís are not Muslims, rather, they are agents of Zionism and colonialism and are enemies of the country; they demanded a review of the ruling that acknowledges this creed."
  • Al-Ahram
    Al-Ahram , founded in 1875, is the most widely circulating Egyptian daily newspaper, and the second oldest after al-Waqa'i`al-Masriya . It is majority owned by the Egyptian government....

    , one of Egypt’s leading daily newspapers, carried the headline: "Crisis in Parliament Over a Judicial Ruling About the Bahá'ís; The Deputies: ‘Al-Bahá’íyyah’ [the Bahá'í Faith] is not a Divine religion … and the ruling contradicts the constitution." The article also stated that the government had decided to appeal the ruling.

On 28 April 2006 after reading that the Egyptian government asked for information on the Bahá'í Faith from members of Al-Azhar University, and knowing that much misinformation about the Bahá'í Faith has been published in the Egyptian media, the Bahá'í International Community’s
Bahá'í International Community
The Bahá'í International Community, or the BIC, is an international non-governmental organization representing the members of the Bahá'í Faith; it was first chartered in March 1948 with the United Nations, and currently has affiliates in over 180 countries and territories.The BIC seeks to "promote...

 United Nations Office wrote to leaders of the Al Azhar Islamic Research Council to explain the essential principles of Bahá'í belief
Bahá'í teachings
The Bahá'í teachings represent a considerable number of theological, social, and spiritual ideas that were established in the Bahá'í Faith by Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the religion, and clarified by successive leaders including `Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh's son, and Shoghi Effendi, `Abdu'l-Bahá's...

. The letter, which contained a brief statement of basic Bahá'í principles and doctrine, also asked that facts about the Bahá'í religion be obtained from trustworthy sources that were "uninfluenced by the misconceptions" that are being spread about the Bahá'í Faith.

The Egyptian government formally appealed the Administrative Court's ruling on 7 May 2006. The appeal came after attacks on the ruling in the Egyptian parliament
Parliament of Egypt
The Parliament of Egypt is the currently dissolved bicameral legislature of Egypt. The Parliament is located in Cairo, Egypt's capital. As the legislative branch of the Egyptian government, the Parliament enacts laws, approves the general policy of the State, the general plan for economic and...

 and by representatives of Al-Azhar Islamic Centre. According to the IRIN news service, an Interior Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said: “We presented an appeal to revoke the previous ruling on the basis that neither the Egyptian constitution nor Islamic law recognize Bahaism [sic] as a religion unto itself.” Then on 13 May 2006 Kifayah, a loosely organized group of civil society organizations, journalists, writers, artists and academics, issued a collective statement calling for an end to discrimination against Bahá'ís. The group which is composed of the Popular Group for Change, the Egyptian Democratic Centre, the Centre for Socialist Studies, Socialist Horizons, the Arabic network for Human Rights Information, and Civil Watch for Human Rights, along with some 40 journalists, writers, artists and academics wrote:
Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court on 15 May suspended the implementation of the earlier lower Administrative Court ruling that allowed Bahá'ís to have their religion recognized on official documents. The court agreed to hear the appeal starting on June 16, which continued to September 16. During this time, the state-sponsored National Council for Human Rights held a major symposium on the issues surrounding religious affiliation and identity cards, at which the Bahá'í community offered some testimony. The hearing was, however, postponed by the Supreme Administrative Court on 21 September 2006 until 20 November, to await the completion of an advisory report by the State Commissioner’s Authority.

During the court's wait, the Egyptian newspaper Rose al-Youssef published a story on October 14, 2006 stating that the advisory report was completed, and that the State Commissioner’s Authority is urging the rejection of the lower court’s ruling. Then on 2 December a final hearing was held; the court indicated that its judgement would be issued in the case on 16 December. The Supreme Administrative Court issued its final judgement in the case of Husam Izzat Musa and Ranya Enayat Rushdy on 16 December, upholding the government’s policy of allowing only three religious affiliations on state ID cards and government documents.

After the ruling, various Egyptian human rights organizations, such as the Cairo Centre for Human Rights Studies, issued statements of support for the Bahá'í community of Egypt in their struggle for basic civil rights. The Universal House of Justice
Universal House of Justice
The Universal House of Justice is the supreme governing institution of the Bahá'í Faith. It is a legislative institution with the authority to supplement and apply the laws of Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, and exercises a judicial function as the highest appellate institution in the...

, the highest governing body of the Baha'i Faith on 21 December addressed a message to the Baha'is of Egypt in the wake of the Supreme Administrative Court's decision stating that they should continue in striving to continue to uphold the principle of the oneness of humankind
Bahá'í Faith and the unity of humanity
The Bahá'í Faith and the unity of humanity is one of the central teachings of the Bahá'í Faith. The Bahá'í teachings state that since all humans have been created in the image of God, God does not make any distinction between people regardless of race or colour. Thus, because all humans have been...

 and other Bahá'í principles.

On January 29, 2008 Cairo's court of Administrative Justice, ruling on two related court cases, and after six postponements, ruled in favour of the Bahá'ís, allowing them to obtain birth certificates and identification documents, so long as they omit their religion on court documents; the government may, however, still appeal against the judgement. The director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is an independent Egyptian human rights organization, established in 2002.-Vision and Mandate:...

, who has brought the two cases to court, stated "This is a very welcome decision. It addresses a great injustice suffered by Bahai citizens who face arbitrary and discriminatory practices based on their religious beliefs. We urge that the authorities implement the Administrative Court's decision." The chief judge in the court case stated that while the Baha'i Faith is still not recognized as one of the three officially recognized state religions, they will enjoy the right to refuse to identify oneself as one of those three religions, and will have access to state cards. Egyptian Ministry of Interior was slow to implement the ruling: as of April 22, 2008, no identification cards had been issued to Bahá'ís.

Other court cases

Since the December 16, 2006 decision by Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court, two other court cases addressing the rights of Egyptian Bahá'ís to obtain basic identity documents and education have been brought up. The first case, which was filed on February 2007, was brought forward by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights is an independent Egyptian human rights organization, established in 2002.-Vision and Mandate:...

 (EIPR) on behalf of a Bahá'í university student, Hosni Hussein Abdel-Massih. Abdel-Massih was suspended from the Suez Canal University's
Suez Canal University
The Suez Canal University is an Egyptian university serving the Suez Canal area, having its faculties divided among the Suez Canal governerates . It was established in 1976. It is notable for its non-classic research...

Higher Institute of Social Work since he was unable to obtain an identity card due to his religious affiliation. The Court of Administrative Justice in Cairo was to decide on this case on September 5, 2007 but postponed the decision to October 30, 2007. The case was further postponed, for the fifth time on January 22, 2008, for an anticipated verdict during the 29 January 2008 court session. On January 29, 2008, Cairo's court of Administrative Justice ruled in favour of the Bahá'ís, allowing them to obtain identification documents, so long as they omit their religion on court documents.

The second case involved two 14-year old twins who were unable to obtain birth certificates unless they converted to a recognized religion. While the father of the twins had originally obtained birth certificates when the children were born in 1993 with their religious affiliation as Bahá'í, he was unable to obtain new birth certificates which contain the national number. Without the national number on the birth certificate, the children were unable to enrol in public schools. Since the Supreme Administrative Court's decision in 2006 found that the government had the right to deny Egyptian Bahá'ís identity documents recognizing their religious affiliation, the EIPR modified the requested remedies in the case; the issue before the Court of Administrative Justice is whether Bahá'ís can obtain documents without any religious affiliation or without falsely identifying oneself as one of the recognized religions. This court case was also set to be decided up on September 5, 2007, but the decision has also been postponed to October 30, 2007. As with the other court case, Cairo's court of Administrative Justice also ruled in favour of the Bahá'ís, allowing them to obtain birth certificates, if they omit their religion on the documents. The EIPR stated that they will immediately seek to obtain papers for the twins.

Regulation changed to reflect ruling and first cards issued

To comply with the January 2008 ruling, on April 14, 2009, the interior minister of Egypt released a decree amending the law to allow Egyptians who are not Muslim, Christian, or Jewish to obtain identification documents that list dash in place of one of the three recognized religion. The first identification cards were issued to two Bahá'ís (the two twins who have turned 16 by then) under the new decree on August 8, 2009.

Bahá'í institutions

Also available in Arabic.