Widening reach of blasphemy law, Egypt targets poet for Facebook post on sheep


Source: The Washington Post

By Sudarsan Raghavan

At a literary gathering in Cairo, the poem Fatma Naoot chose to read could not have been more relevant. It was about prisons, both physical and psychological, and the people who use them to trap the outspoken.

It was about the sort of people Naoot hopes to escape.

They include those who were outraged by her Facebook post that called the ceremonial slaughter of sheep during a Muslim holiday “the most horrible massacre committed by humans.” And those who filed a lawsuit against her in an Egyptian court, which convicted her of “insulting Islam.” She was sentenced to three years in prison in January, a verdict she was appealing while out on bail.

On Thursday, an Egyptian court rejected that appeal and upheld her sentence for “contempt of religion.”

Naoot is among a growing number of Egyptians who are in jail, are facing incarceration or have lost jobs for allegedly breaking a set of arcane blasphemy laws that the government is aggressively applying. Despite the long secular history of the Egyptian military, which now dominates the government, there have been more religious-based convictions during President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s time in office than under the Islamist government the former general replaced two years ago, according to human rights activists.

To supporters of Sissi, the courts have become a battleground in the fight with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood for the hearts and minds of Egypt’s masses. To his critics, religion has increasingly become a tool that helps Sissi strengthen his grip, silence opponents and gain moral authority.

Together, the arrests and convictions illustrate the extent to which freedom of expression has been curtailed since the revolution that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak five years ago.

“I don’t feel I am a criminal,” Naoot said after the poetry reading. “I don’t feel I am a sinner.”

Piety as a political tool

Egypt is in an existential limbo these days, as is the Arab world it once led. In quick succession, the idealism bred by the 2011 revolution gave way to an elected Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamed Morsi. But rule under religious ideologues proved so unpopular that Egyptians took to the streets again and backed Sissi, at the time the head of Egypt’s military, who overthrew Morsi. A year later, Sissi won a landslide electoral victory, promising to bring religious reforms.

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