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Fighting for a Secular Egypt

Dreams of a secular Egypt seem like a far away fantasy, but one woman and her group have made it their mission to make it a reality. Conor Sheils talks to Rabab Kamal about The Secular Movement in Egypt.

The notion of a secular Egypt is a contentious issue for many; however one state television anchor has fought off death threats and smear campaigns in her battle to kick religion out of politics.

Rabab Kamal, who works as an announcer for state radio alongside her fellow activists, forms part of "The Secular Movement" - a clandestine group which aims to abolish the sharia-based constitution and fight religious fundementalism in favour of a secular Egypt.

Kamal becomes animated when asked about the history behind the group.

"We were founded in December 2011 - when the parliament was dominated by Islamists. We were a group of friends who used to hang around in Downtown discussing our ideas and we didn't like the direction in which the country was being driven," she said.

"The key issue for us is the use of Sharia or any religious law as the basis for the consitution. We want to fight all forms of religious fundemantalism and end the scenario whereby the laws of the state are governed by religion. For us, secular means neither nor - quite simply we want politics without religion," she continued.

Religion has long played an influential role in politics throughout its modern history, and though the line in the constitution which states that Islamic Sharia is the main source of legislation has long been contested, it has never lost its place in the second article of the constitution.

"Throughout Egyptian history, the government and religious fundementalists have used religion as a tool to silence dissent," Kamal stated. "It is my view that we can no longer live in a society like this, Egypt needs to change."

The group conducts weekly meetings in a run-down building in Downtown Cairo. However despite their humble surroundings, Kamal claims the group has some radical ideas regarding the future of Egypt. "It's not that we're being overly courageous - we are just doing what we can.

"The fight is long and it will take many generations before religion and state are finally separated. We need to change the mindset of the entire populace."

The group is currently spearheading a poster campaign asking Egyptians, "Have you used your brain today?" The phrase is designed to encourage lateral thinking and discussion on the issues affecting Egyptian daily life.

The move comes in response to the popular, "Have you praised the prophet today" sticker initiative, which was outlawed by the government earlier this week, citing the reason that it caused sectarian strife. The ban sparked controversy, and a counter-movement was launched calling on people to put up the popular stickers in public places nationwide.

"The sticker campaign is one of many we've run in the past," Kamal said of her movement's campaign. "It means 'Have you used your brain today', it is in response to 'Have you praise the prophet' campaign.

"We're not telling people not to praise the Prophet, or Christ or whoever but we are asking to them to use their brains while doing so. What is the problem with praising the prophet and also using your brain?

"We are also launching a petition to have article 98, contempt of religion, removed from the constitution as it directly contradicts article 67 - the freedom of creativity."

Numerous arrests have recently occurred for contempt of religion; most notably that of Alber Saber in 2012, who was arrested for allegedly sharing the film "Innocence of Muslims" - which sparked major controversy and protests among Muslims due to the film's content, which many deemed to be offensive.

A mob attempted to break into his home, alleging that he shared the film, and when his mother called the police for protection, they arrested him instead. Saber is an open atheist, and is known for his online "activism" in this regard. He received a three year imprisonment sentence for the charges launched against him in 2012.

Furthermore, Kamal's group's ambitions have already been met with fierce opposition from hardline religious extremists.

"Salafi groups have already started taking down our posters," she said. "But in honesty this makes me feel great because it means we are on the right track."

Meanwhile extremists also used the media to issue death threats against the groups' members during the time of former president Mohamed Morsi.

"One of the biggest challenges for us has been death threats. The most severe threats came on June 10 last year. Fundementalists used a religious satellite channel to call for our execution, they branded us infidels and atheists."

Kamal is keen to point out the she identifies herself as secular rather than atheist. "For me it isn't a problem with religion - it is a problem with the power of religion," she adds.

This week Egypt's government launched campaign to tackle Atheism, which they see as a growing national concern. Speaking about the move Kamal is frank in her criticism of the campaign.

"Secularism is not atheism, but atheism is not a charge. The constitution is supposed to gaurantee absolute religious freedom yet this campaign directly contradicts this," she continued.

"The government really needs to take a step back and review their strategy towards religion in this country. The state should be religion blind."

However religious fundementalists aren't the only ones opposed to Kamal's views. In fact the most stringent opposition came from within the walls of state media headquarters.

"People at my work know what I do, some of them encourage me. Others do not, I've had smear campaigns against me."

However refuses to reveal the identity of her tormentors. "Let's just say she's a well-known TV personality. She, along with other colleagues started a smear campaign, posting my personal details on social media."

"The problem with state media in Egypt is that you get a lot of radio and TV personalities speaking their own mind."

However despite the constant struggles, Kamal remains determined to carry on the fight against religious politics.

"This fight will not be won in six months or one year - it will take generations before we see real change.

"However we must keep on fighting for what we know is right."