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The Egyptian Interior Ministry has reportedly initiated an unprecedented campaign against people suspected of breaking the traditional Ramadan fast in public, but the arrests cannot be corroborated.
If confirmed, the arrests mark a higher level of intolerance from the authorities towards manifestations of secularism.
The alleged arrests were reported in several Egyptian newspapers and in the pan-Arab Al-Arabiyya, but a human-rights activist advised caution with regards to the reports and said that currently they have not been substantiated.
"We've been trying for several days to ascertain the validity of these reports but we haven't received even a single testimony," Hossam Bahgat, Director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights told The Media Line.
"The arrests might have been provoked by the fact that they were eating during the day but we can't confirm this was the official reason for their arrest," he said, adding that security forces have denied the allegations.
During the month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, healthy adult Muslims are obligated to fast every day from dawn till dusk, refraining from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual relations. But Bahgat stressed there was nothing in the Egyptian Penal Code that could justify arresting people for breaking the fast.
The practice is commonplace in some Gulf countries, where people caught breaking the Ramadan fast during the day can be arrested and sometimes put in jail for a month or fined around $350, the pan-Arab Al-Arabiyya reported.
The largest wave of arrests in Egypt reportedly took place in the Aswan governorate, but Bahgat said there could be many reasons for these arrests, especially since the President's son was expected to pay a visit there on Tuesday and the security forces were likely to arrest people who looked suspicious.
"This country has been in a state of emergency since 1981, and the security agencies do not have to have a specific cause to stop or arrest someone, so it's very difficult to determine the exact reason for arresting someone," he said.
The reports have drawn criticism from human rights organizations, one of which said it indicated Egypt was turning into a Taliban-style state.
Cafes and restaurants in Cairo are allowed to open during the day in Ramadan, but the main customers tend to be tourists, Copts and Muslims who do not observe the fast.
Bahgat said this is tolerated, but observant Muslims will be irritated by seeing people eating on the street, outside eateries.
Meanwhile, Islam Online reported the esteemed Al-Azhar Institution and the Egyptian Ministry of Islamic Trust both support punishing people who break the fast in public and asked that a law be passed to this effect.
An Al-Azhar cleric Abd Al-Muti Bayoumi made a distinction between a person's personal choice not to fast and a person who breaks the fast in public.
"He's not doing this out of liberty, but rather, in publicizing this, he scorns those who are fasting, he scorns the month of Ramadan and the fasting obligation," he told the news portal. "Also, he shows lack of respect towards the sensitivities of those fasting and makes them thirsty and hungry while he eats in front of them."
The reports of the arrests coincide with another controversy in Egypt concerning an exemption from fasting for athletes.
Dar Al-Iftaa, a religious institution, issued a fatwa - a religious decree - that exempted Egypt's national soccer team from fasting during Ramadan, ahead of an international tournament, so that the fast will not interfere with their training.
The fatwa was issued ahead of the World Youth Championship which will begin on September 24, shortly after Ramadan ends.
The players reportedly refused to apply the exemption, which was denounced by other religious scholars.
The importance and holiness of Ramadan, the only month mentioned in the Qur'an, lies in the tradition that during this month the Qur'an, the book most holy to Muslims, was revealed to the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
Trade and industry generally come to a standstill during Ramadan, especially when it falls during the hot months.
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