One of Egypt’s wealthiest men will be tried for insulting religion because of a cartoon he tweeted months ago, according to lawyers.
Naguib Sawiris, a Coptic Christian business tycoon, is facing charges after he posted on Twitter a depiction of Disney’s Mickey and Minnie Mouse over the summer in ultra conservative Islamic dress: Mickey with a beard and Minnie with a veil and face cover.
The cartoon made fun of the rise of Islamism in the region and the backlash was immediate and severe from residents in this mostly Muslim country where Islamists swept the polls in the first post-Hosni Mubarak parliamentary election. On social media pages some called for his tongue to be cut out; one extreme Muslim preacher said he should be killed. People boycotted his mobile phone company, Mobinil, and Sawiris pulled down the image and apologized, saying it was a joke.
His apology didn’t stop ultra conservative Islamist lawyer Mamdouh Ismail from filing a complaint. The Cairo prosecutor referred the case to court on Monday.
“It was a joke, the reaction was surprising and strong, and he apologized and took it down, which showed good intentions,” said human rights lawyer Gamal Eid. “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.”
Eid said the move was a clear attack on freedom of expression, and evidence that “there is no rule of law in Egypt.”
Sawiris heads the liberal Free Egyptians Party and is often getting himself into hot water over things he says or does. Recently a video surfaced on YouTube of him on a chair in a nightclub getting lapdances from scantily clad women, scandalous footage for any politician let alone one in this conservative country. In a recent interview that went viral last month, he said that Egyptian pharaonic genes had deteriorated over the years and that’s why Egyptians were lazy, unproductive people.
But more than Sawiris’s apparent bad judgment, the case raises the question of freedom of speech in post-Mubarak Egypt. Will Sawiris face jail time over a bad joke?
On Monday, his party also announced that they would boycott the elections for the upper house of parliament which start at the end of the month. The boycott of the upper and less important house of Egypt’s parliament is over perceived electoral violations during the balloting for the lower house from November through this week, including the use of religious slogans by Islamist parties. The Free Egyptians ran with other liberal parties in the Egyptian Bloc and were among the best performing liberal coalitions in the country.