Egyptian atheists and "The Innocence of Muslims"

Alber Saber, a blogger and student in Cairo, is accused of defaming Islam.

An Egyptian atheist is in “serious danger” following his arrest and assault after protestors threatened to kill him and burn down his house in connection to the dissemination of a film insulting the Prophet Mohammed, his lawyer has warned.

Alber Saber, a 27 year-old blogger and computer science student from Cairo, is accused of defaming Islam — an antiquated legal charge that has seen a partial revival in a post-revolution Egypt dominated by Islamist groups.

Saber’s lawyer, Ahmed Ezzat, explained how his client’s ordeal began last Wednesday when a rumor spread that he had posted a trailer of the film “The Innocence of Muslims” — which portrays the Prophet as a thug and child molester and has sparked angry protests around the world — on an atheist Facebook page.

“With the famous film, the situation is very tense at the moment and many people in the neighborhood said that he had posted the film online and burned the Quran,” Ezzat told me from Cairo.

Saber’s mother, Kariman Mesiha Khalil, called the police and asked them to protect her son.

“I was not scared for myself; I was scared for my son. They were coming to butcher him,” she said.

When the police finally arrived, instead of protecting Saber, they arrested him.

According to Ezzat, Samer was transported to a local police station and thrown in a crowded jail cell. The guard on duty took his time to silence the rest of the inmates, informed the entire room that Saber had insulted the Prophet, locked the door, and left.

Saber was attacked by several prisoners, one of whom held a razor blade to his throat.

“He could have inflicted a serious injury,” Ezzat said. “We believe Saber is in serious danger. The public prosecutor will not tell us where he is being kept. No one knows where he is.”

“Innocence,” the crudely-made, amateur film trailer reportedly produced in the United States by a Coptic Christian fraudster, has sparked mass protests across the Middle East and in many countries with sizeable Muslim populations outraged at its portrayal of the Prophet Mohammed. Several US diplomatic mission buildings have been stormed, including the US consulate in Benghazi, where US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens was killed.

In Egypt, demonstrators clashed with riot police for several days around the US embassy compound in central Cairo. More than 200 people were arrested and dozens wounded in the skirmishes.

Authorities blocked online access to the video throughout Egypt, but not before a prominent, ultra-Conservative Sheikh, Khaled Abdullah, aired a segment on the Saudi-backed Al-Nas [The People] channel last week.

Abdullah defended his decision to air the trailer and continues to host his show although a civil lawsuit has been filed against him. The contrast between the treatment of Abdullah and Saber could not be more pronounced.  

While Ezzat denies his client ever posted the trailer for the controversial film online, police investigators uncovered a video, made by Saber and entitled “Why Did God Create Man?” which  questions the notion of religious authority.

“The video criticized [religious] leaders for how they think that they hold all the truths and everyone else is false,” Ezzat explained. “Our defense is freedom of expression.”

Saber was refused bail and ordered to spend the next two weeks in custody at a secret location. Meanwhile, the mob returned to his home.

They surrounded the building and ordered his mother to leave the neighborhood or be burned alive inside the flat. Khalil, who is a Coptic Christian, has been in hiding since the weekend. She spoke to me from a safe house.

“I can’t go back to the area and I don’t have anywhere to stay now,” she said. “This is not ordinary. My son didn't do anything. He's a very good guy and he has friends from all religions. This is throwing wood on to the fire but to what purpose? I don't know.”

Trials of those accused of insulting Islam have made a return to Egyptian courts in recent months.

In February, a charge of insulting Islam against billionaire tycoon Naguib Sawiris — who had posted images of Mickey and Minnie Mouse in traditional Islamic garb on his Twitter feed — was thrown out of court.

Three months later, a Christian teenager was sentences to three years in prison after posting a drawing mocking the Prophet on Facebook. On Tuesday, a teacher was sentenced to six years in jail – three for insulting the Prophet – at a court in southern Egypt for a similar offence. Such cases are numerous; only the highest profile trials receive much coverage.

Lawyers and rights activists have criticized the rash of lawsuits brought against citizens they say are merely expressing their opinion. Local support for Saber has been anemic, possibly due to the fact that atheism in Egypt remains largely taboo.

“The public prosecutor, who is a religious man, took me aside and angrily asked me how I could defend such a person who didn’t believe in God. I said: ‘He is a citizen and he has the right to express his opinion’,” Ezzat said.

 

A protestor runs with a canister of tear gas near the US embassy in Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images
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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

Theresa May says Article 50 will be triggered on 29 March. The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On Wednesday 29 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.