CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian atheist convicted then released from prison on bail this week told The Associated Press Wednesday that the new Islamist government is no better than the dictatorial regime it replaced.
The blasphemy case against Alber Saber, 27, is seen by rights advocates as part of a campaign by Egypt’s ultraconservative Islamists to curb free expression. It underlines the growing divide between the country’s powerful Islamists and those who say their uncompromising approach is creating a new authoritarian system that does not represent all Egyptians.
Saber was arrested in September after neighbors complained he had posted an anti-Islam film that sparked protests across the Muslim world on his Facebook page, but investigators didn’t find evidence of that. Even so, he was put on trial and sentenced last week to three years in prison for blasphemy and contempt of religion. He was released on bail on Tuesday pending an appeal in January.
Saber, wearing a black tracksuit that hung off of his slight frame, told the AP that he believes the Muslim Brotherhood used him as an example — and as a means of warning those who oppose their Islamist ideology that alternate views will not be tolerated.
“They are no different from the former regime,” said Saber of President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.
“The weapons have changed, but they are both oppressive regimes,” he said, explaining that while the Mubarak government relied on a network of security agencies to stifle dissent, the Brotherhood mobilizes an equally well-organized network of followers to carry out similar efforts to repress opposition to the Islamist-led government.
The fundamentalist group and its ultraconservative Islamist allies have dominated politics in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak, winning several elections and sparking fears from secular and liberal Egyptians of a crackdown on basic rights.
Islamists insist they speak for the Muslim majority in Egypt’s conservative society, calling the constitution a compromise that cannot meet all demands of every group. They deny that their intention is to persecute minorities.
“They picked a good moment to target me,” said Saber, referring to the charged environment in the Muslim world after the anti-Islam film “The Innocence of Muslims” circulated on the Internet.
He was arrested at home on Sept. 13 during a wave of public outrage over the film, which triggered a riot at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
Saber said that the night he was arrested and jailed, a police officer moved him to a cell where the officer incited detainees against Saber by telling that he had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Saber was attacked by angry cellmates, one of whom slashed his neck with a knife.
He said that this means of incitement on religious grounds is one of the tools being used by the government.
He has a bumpy discolored scar from the wound.
Saber said that regardless of the result of his appeal, the Egyptian system is unjust for minorities like himself.
“Egypt is a religious state,” said Saber. “If you disobey the norms, you get judged and sentenced. I’m not a criminal, but I’m being judged and sentenced on my opinion.”
Openly admitting to being an atheist is extremely rare in Egypt, and the notion of atheism is considered offensive to many in the predominantly religious society.
His mother, a Coptic Christian who wears a cross and bears a tattoo of a cross on her wrist like many Egyptian Christians, said she feared for her son’s safety. She was forced to leave her apartment the morning after Saber was arrested when men banged her door, telling her that they would burn her apartment and her church after Friday prayers if she did not leave.
“Alber’s case is not the first and will not be the last,” said Ahmed Ezzat, one of Saber’s lawyers. “There are no steps by the authorities to protect freedom of expression — the opposite, authorities are attacking more.”
Saber’s sentencing came days before Egyptians began voting on an Islamist-backed constitution. In the first of two legs, the draft received a 56 percent “yes” vote.
Rights groups and members of Egypt’s opposition fear the document will enable the Islamist government to severely restrict civil rights.
One article forbids limiting the basic rights of individuals but specifies that they “must be practiced in a manner not conflicting with” principles of religious law, which rights groups say opens the door for further clashes over freedom of expression.