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Christian businessman charged with blasphemy in Egypt over tweet

Country/Region: Middle East and North Africa, Egypt

A prominent Christian businessman and liberal political leader in Egypt has been charged with “blasphemy and insulting Islam” for tweeting an image of Mickey and Minnie Mouse dressed in Islamic clothing.

Telecommunications executive Naguib Sawiris, who also heads the secular liberal Free Egyptians political party, will face a trial after a group of Islamist lawyers filed a lawsuit against him. He could face a year in prison if convicted.

Naguib-Sawiris-4X3.jpg
Naguib Sawiris

The picture of a bearded Mickey Mouse wearing a traditional Islamic robe and Minnie Mouse in a niqab, posted by Mr Sawiris on Twitter last June, prompted thousands of complaints on the internet.

He apologised saying, “I just thought it was a funny picture; no disrespect meant. I am sorry.”

But the apology was not enough to placate the offended Muslims, and various Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, led a nationwide campaign calling for a boycott of products and services offered by Mr Sawiris’ companies.

He is the chairman of Orascom Telecom and a major shareholder in mobile phone service provider Mobinil. Around 300,000 customers have left Mobinil, accusing Mr Sawiris of insulting Islam.   

Political dimension      

There have been suggestions that the legal action against Mr Sawiris could also have a political dimension. Criticising the charges and trial, human rights lawyer Gamal Eid said:

Contempt of religion’ is a very vague term, and the prosecution has taken the radical interpretation, raising questions of whether this is a legal or a political matter.

Advocating a secular, liberal future for Egypt, Mr Sawiris has openly opposed the Islamists’ plan to draft a new constitution heavily influenced by sharia law.

And that prospect looks increasingly likely as the country’s two leading Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and the Salafist al-Nur party, emerged from the parliamentary elections with around two-thirds of the vote. Mr Sawiris’ Free Egyptians party came a distant third with around ten per cent.  

The blasphemy charge against Mr Sawiris raises further concerns about the direction in which post-revolution Egypt is heading. While the uprising was characterised by calls for a secular democracy, key principles of such a state – freedom of speech and religion – appear to be lacking in this case.

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