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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood