Alber Saber, a young Egyptian blogger and computer science graduate has been arrested and detained for allegedly posting a trailer for an anti-Islam film on Facebook. The trailer for the film “Innocence of Muslims” deemed insulting to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, had earlier been lifted from YouTube in Egypt after it sparked anti-US protests.
Born into a Coptic Christian family, Saber was arrested after a neighbour complained to police last week that he was administering a Facebook page for “Egyptian Atheists”, one of several online groups of its kind. Saber has been charged with insulting Islam — a crime punishable by law in Egypt after he posted the video portraying Islam’s revered Prophet as a womaniser and child molester on the site. He has been jailed pending an investigation. The probe will also look into videos he posted online in which he promulgates his own liberal views on religion — views likely to shock many in today’s conservative Egypt. It remains unclear however which of the videos will be used by the General Prosecutor in the case.
Saber is the second prisoner of conscience to face imprisonment for his beliefs in post-revolutionary Egypt. Maikel Nabil — another Copt-turned-atheist, was arrested in March 2011 and jailed for 10 months for a Facebook post insulting the military establishment. Like Nabil did, Saber has gone on hunger strike to protest his confinement. He has also suffered an attack by inmates angered by his beliefs.
Saber’s arrest triggered condemnation from human rights activists and revolutionary youths concerned about religious freedom and free expression under Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood. The influential religious, political and social movement advocates Sharia (Islamic law) above civil governance.
Prominent blogger Mahmoud Salem, popularly known as Sandmonkey, decried Saber’s arrest stating that “it is ironic that a government which came to power because of a revolution sparked by social media networks would crackdown on activists using Facebook to express their views.”
In an article published in the independent Daily News Egypt, he noted that Khaled Abdalla, a conservative Muslim TV presenter who appears on the independent religious channel El Nas, was the first to broadcast sections of the obscure film on television, bringing the matter to public attention. Abdalla has not been detained despite several lawsuits filed against him for causing violent demonstrations in Cairo and Alexandria that continued for four days resulting in the death of one protester and scores of injuries.
The protests that erupted in Cairo on 11 September outside the US embassy were dominated by ultra-conservative Salafists. Several demonstrators scaled the walls of the embassy, replacing a US flag with the prophet Muhamad’s black battle flag bearing the Muslim declaration of faith “There is no God but Allah”. The protests turned violent last Friday when around 300 agitators hurled rocks and molotov cocktails at security forces who took cover behind concrete barriers erected outside the embassy. Friday’s protest was held despite the cancellation of a “million people rally” called for earlier by the Muslim Brotherhood. Analysts believe the Muslim Brotherhood is using the Mubarak-era tactic of diverting public attention away from the government’s shortcomings by encouraging protests against an outside power — in this case, the United States.
Public discontent has grown in recent weeks over Morsi’s failure to fulfil campaign pledges to improve security, traffic and street cleanliness during his first 100 days in office. According to his so-called 100-day plan , Morsi had also promised to make bread and fuel available to all citizens. Frequent power outages during the fasting month of Ramadan have belied those promises. Many Egyptians — more than 40 per cent of whom live under the $2 a day poverty line, are struggling to make ends meet amidst soaring unemployment and rising prices.The Morsi-meter, a website launched by revolutionary youths to monitor and assess Morsi’s performance in his first three months in office indicates that just four out of a total of 64 promises he made have so far been fulfilled. Meanwhile, 22 promises are marked as being “in progress”. The website also shows that satisfaction with what has been achieved so far is at a low 44 per cent.
Concerns are also growing over a government crackdown on media that is hostile towards the Islamist President. A Cairo court recently ordered the detention of Islam Afifi, Editor-in-Chief of the independent Al Dostour on charges of fomenting sedition. Afifi was released shortly after his detention following the passage of a decree by President Morsi forbidding the detention of journalists in press-related crimes. Talk show host Tawfik Okasha , owner of the independent TV channel Fara’een also faces charges for inciting the murder of the President. Okasha has in turn filed a lawsuit against President Morsi and senior Muslim Brotherhood figures, accusing them of launching a campaign of hate mail and threatening him with death. The controversial TV presenter whose channel has been suspended by the government, alleges receiving messages in the mail threatening that he would be killed unless he apologised for opposing Morsi and the Brotherhood.
The suspension of Okasha’s TV channel, the confiscation of a Saturday edition of Al Dostour and the heavy censorship of articles and talk shows critical of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are all part of the government crackdown on free expression that has fuelled concerns of a regression in new found press freedoms and a reversal to the old restrictive media atmosphere that prevailed under Mubarak. Not surprisingly, Morsi’s decision to end the pre-trial detention of journalists has been described by Freedom House as “mere window-dressing designed to draw attention away from the broader campaign against free expression in Egypt”.
Saber’s arrest is the latest in a string of assaults to silence free voices in the new Egypt where it appears little has changed more than a year and a half after the mass uprising that toppled the old authoritarian regime.
Journalist Shahira Amin resigned from her post as deputy head of state-run Nile TV in February 2011. Read why she resigned from the “propaganda machine” here.