As Egyptians vote on whether to adopt the new constitution, Richard Spencer talks to those promoting the new rules – and those fearful of what is to come.Photo: REUTERS
When Alber Saber’s mother called police to protect him from a mob baying for his blood, something odd happened: they arrested him. They then threw him in prison, encouraged his cellmates to attack him, and finally took him to court where he was jailed for three months.
Mr Saber’s alleged offence was all the more significant in light of the new constitution – being voted on by millions of Egyptians on Saturday – that is at the heart of Egypt’s political crisis.
The mob in his Cairo suburb accused him of atheism and disrespect of the Prophet Mohammed, and demanded he be killed; a neighbour had alleged he had posted to his Facebook page the now notorious Islam-mocking video that triggered protests across the world in September.
His mother, Kariman Ghali, cries frequently as she describes visiting him in prison the day after the mob surrounded their apartment block.
“He had blood all over his T-shirt,” said Mrs Ghali, who claims her son was put in a wing reserved for dangerous inmates. “The policeman told the prisoners, ‘This guy insulted the Prophet, I want to see what you can do with him.’ Someone stabbed him with a razor.”
He was then taken to another cell where the inmates were urged to see if they could outdo the first set.
Some 250,000 police and soldiers were deployed across Egypt on Saturday to protect voting in the second half of the referendum on the draft constitution, which was drawn up by an Islamist-dominated panel from which Christians and liberals had withdrawn in protest.
Among the many charges levelled against the constitution by both human rights groups, secular and liberal activists, and the Coptic Christian minority, is that its defense of basic freedoms is heavily curtailed when it comes to religion and politics.
Specifically, it will forbid any law that would permit anything deemed insulting either of people or of religion, the Prophet Mohammed or the other figures considered by Islam to be God’s messengers. Such a clause could clearly have a chilling effect on free thinking and speech.
Demonstrations continued right to the eve of Saturday’s vote, which was expected to lead to a clear but not convincing victory both for the constitution – drafted by an overwhelmingly Islamist assembly – and for President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers, who have pushed it through.
In the first phase of voting in the split referendum last weekend, 57 per cent backed the document, albeit with a low turnout, and a similar result was expected on Saturday.
Yet many are alarmed that it will further enshrine an intolerance that is already on the rise.
“Things are definitely worse than under the old regime,” said Gamal Eid, of the Arabic Human Rights Initiative. “It is because of the Islamists having power – their sense that they have won.”
That is only part of the story. Despite regular descriptions of ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s old dictatorship as “secular”, it too made Egypt a country constitutionally obliged to follow the “principles of Sharia”. The laws it promulgated were wide enough and flexible enough to turn the Islamist tap on and off at will, according to the Mubarak’s regime’s short-term interests.
Blasphemy laws have been in place since 1937, and can be used to defend Christianity as well as Islam. But in practice the law was deployed regularly, both as a sop to the Muslim Brotherhood and also simply as a means of state repression.
Nevertheless, Mr Eid says there is a sense that religion can now be invoked to pursue any manner of grievances, in a way designed to emphasise a conservative vision of society.
In one case he has taken up, an 18-year-old girl from a provincial village was arrested for blasphemy after a row with her mother and brother, who had discovered she had met a boyfriend after going away to university.
It was the girl who had complained to the police first, alleging that her mother and brother had beaten her, but when questioned, the mother claimed the girl had cursed her and cursed her religion. That was enough for the police to switch the focus of their attention.
Until the start of the referendum campaign, it appeared that this tightening of personal freedoms was at least going to be kept within a legal framework. Events since have brought this into question.
A lot changed on the night of December 5. During the afternoon, a group of Muslim Brotherhood supporters swept down on a tent encampment outside the presidential palace, occupied by anti-Morsi protesters, and tore them down.
The counter-demonstration that evening was violent and bloody, with both sides hurling stones at each other, and the Muslim Brotherhood claiming that several of its members were shot dead.
But also disturbing was the role earlier of what appeared to be a Muslim Brotherhood militia who seized protesters off the streets and took them for their own “interrogation” before handing them over to police.
“After they caught me they dragged me away and started threatening me,” said Walid al-Ganzouri, no youthful stone-thrower but a 35-year-old, British educated engineer. “They said they were going to kill me, and started beating me up.”
Along with scores of others, he was eventually handed over, bruised and with cuts to his head, to the prosecution service, which released them for lack of evidence. This did not stop Mr Morsi, during a late-night address, saying that “evidence from confessions” obtained from some of those seized showed they were plotting against the government.
This talk of a coup has been used to heighten the atmosphere in ways that stretch beyond the politics of the constitution itself. A preacher linked to the Brotherhood, Safwat Hegazi, for example, was not disavowed by the movement after he threatened in a speech to “splash Christians with blood” if they tried to join in attempts to bring Mr Morsi down.
Gehad el-Haddad, a senior Brotherhood adviser, told The Sunday Telegraph that he accepted that there had been “inflammatory language” on all sides.
But he said the Brotherhood’s supporters had been forced to act against the protesters because the police had refused to do so.
It is true that the loyalty of the police has been in doubt since their leaders were arrested after last year’s overthrow of Mr Mubarak.
Some of those opposed to Mr Morsi, and the constitution, are undoubtedly prominent Christians. But a “no” vote of at least 43 per cent in last week’s part of the referendum vote suggests that opposition also runs deep among many Muslims.
Mr Saber is of Christian origin too, something that lends extra concern to his case. But his mother claimed that was less relevant than the active positions he took. She says he was really seized because he had posted a photo on his Facebook page of a banner in Tahrir Square accusing the Brotherhood of having hijacked last year’s revolution.
His jail sentence was imposed for atheism despite no evidence being found of his ever having posted the video. Last weekend, he was released on bail pending an appeal.
“The verdict was an absolute inquisition,” Mrs Ghali said. “They didn’t listen to the lawyers’ defence.”
She is now joining the protests outside the palace. “This is not only for my son’s case – but also for all our sons’ futures.”