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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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.