Africa

Egyptian businessman to be tried for blasphemy

By Theresa Mallinson 10 January 2012

Poking fun at Islam is no Mickey Mouse affair. Egyptian businessman and Free Egyptians Party founder Naguib Sawiris has learnt this the hard way: after tweeting a picture of Mickey & Minnie dressed in conservative Islamic garb, his court appearance on blasphemy charges is set for 14 January. By THERESA MALLINSON.

Naguib Sawiris is a well-known Egyptian telecommunications mogul and, since last year, politician. A Coptic Christian, he has been vocal against the rise of conservative Islam and queries have been raised about his company benefiting from privatisation sell-offs under the Mubarak regime. One thing he’s famous for is speaking his mind, as The Washington Post noted, recently Sawaris claimed: “Egyptian pharaonic genes had deteriorated over the years and that’s why Egyptians were lazy, unproductive people.”

This time he’s in trouble for a tweet he posted back in June 2011. It was a picture of Mickey & Minnie Mouse, with Mickey wearing a dish-dash and sporting a beard and Minnie’s face covered by a burqa, leaving only her eyes peeping out. Sawiris subsequently tweeted an apology. “I apologise for any who don’t take this as a joke, I just thought it was a funny picture no disrespect meant!” Despite this a group of Islamist lawyers laid a complaint. 

On Monday the prosecution office of central Cairo referred the case to the Bulaq misdemeanour court, where it will be heard on Saturday. Sawiris is to be charged with contempt of religion.

“It was a joke, the reaction was surprising and strong, and he apologised and took it down, which showed good intentions,” The Washington Post quoted human-rights lawyer Gamal Eid as saying. “The same prosecutors that are moving so quickly on this case have had other cases on their plate for months, but they’ve been dealing with them really slowly.”

On Tuesday a second complaint was laid against Sawiris with the Illicit Gains Authority, over his business dealings with the Mubarak regime. This complaint, which wasn’t laid by the same group of lawyers, is still to be investigated, but it certainly makes the timing of the prosecutor’s decision on the Mickey Mouse case suspicious. Evidence may or may not come to light that supports the allegations levelled against Sawiris for dodgy business practices. But the second case against him has – or should have – absolutely nothing to do with the first.

Unfortunately, it seems the lawyers who levelled the blasphemy charge against Sawiris fall into the stereotype at which South African cartoonist Zapiro poked fun last year, when he depicted the Prophet Muhammed on a psychologist’s couch, moaning: “Other prophets have followers with a sense of humour”. We hope the judge presiding over Sawaris’s case sees his joke for what it is, but the reality is, stuck between the military and Islamists, the right to freedom of expression in Egypt is in a precarious position at the moment. DM


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