CAIRO — Egyptian blogger Alber Saber appeared in court here Wednesday, standing in a cage, pale and skinny, wearing jailhouse whites, his head shaved. He flashed a V for victory sign with his fingers to the spectators. His mother wept.
The 27-year-old computer science major from a Coptic Christian family, a few credits shy of his college degree, was arrested two weeks ago on charges of disdaining religion and ridiculing religious beliefs and rituals.
After a mob of his neighbors laid siege to his home, and after he was arrested by police, media reports suggested that Saber had posted a link to the infamous YouTube video “Innocence of Muslims” on Facebook.
The arrest points to stark differences in laws and attitudes regarding freedom of expression, especially as applied to religion, in the Middle East and the United States.
Saber’s lawyers deny that he had anything to do with the video, although they concede that he did ruminate on social media sites about the meaning of religion. Showing contempt toward what Egyptian statutes call the “heavenly” religions — Christianity, Islam and Judaism — is punishable by up to five years in prison.
On Tuesday, President Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly, devoting most of his remarks to the new democracies born in the Arab Spring and insisting on the importance of free speech in the wake of violent anti-American protests in the Muslim world.
The same day, Egyptian authorities announced that charges would be filed against a prominent Islamist activist and TV personality, Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah, who tore up a copy of the Bible during a demonstration outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.
“Next time I will urinate on it,” he says on camera.
The case is a rare example of Egypt’s laws being used against someone who allegedly insulted a religion other than Islam.
While Saber is incarcerated, Abdullah remains free before his hearing.
Religious leaders and conservative Islamist politicians in Egypt have called on the United Nations to find a way to criminalize contempt for religion. But liberal activists here say the blasphemy laws are so vague, and applied almost exclusively when people allegedly defame Islam, that they are nothing more than a political tool.
They cite as an example the well-known conservative Islamist and commentator Khaled Abdel Allah, who showed a clip of the “Innocence of Muslims” video on an Islamic satellite TV channel here but has not been arrested. His critics say it was his show that first brought attention to the video in Egypt and incited the violence.
The case against Saber was born in the tense days after violent protests against the U.S. Embassy here.
When the mob came for him on Sept. 12, the blogger took shelter in his mother’s arms as his enraged neighbors tried to batter down the door to their apartment in a working-class neighborhood.
The crowd called for his head, quite literally. “You could hear them damning us to hell,” his mother, Kariman Ghali, said in an interview.
She said that she heard the crowd cry that the house should be burned and that many of the curses and taunts were directed at Christians. She is a Christian, although some of her son’s friends and fellow activists say Saber is an atheist.
A video shot outside Saber’s apartment building shows a crowd clapping, whistling, drumming and rejoicing after police arrested the activist. As police officers escort him out of the building, chants of “God is great” can be heard, along with curses and taunts.
Ahmed Ezzat, a human rights lawyer who is defending Saber, says the government has no proof that Saber has any connection to the video.
“Nor is there any call for violence,” Ezzat said outside the courtroom before the preliminary hearing. “How can this be a crime?”
Saber’s lawyers concede that he did engage in discussions about the meaning of religion on the Web — but they ask what is wrong with that. One of the lawyers described it as the kind of late-night questioning common in college dormitories around the world.
“How do I know who the true God is?” Saber asks in video posted on a Facebook page, where he contends that conflict among the three major religions creates confusion.
Ingy H. Hassieb contributed to this report.