Prominent Egyptian poet Fatma Naoot is pictured in Cairo on Sept. 24, 2008. She could be sent to prison for years for a Facebook post in which she criticized the slaughter of animals during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. (Al Youm Al Saabi/Reuters)

At a literary gathering in Cairo, the poem Fatma Naoot chose to read could not have been more relevant. It was about prisons, both physical and psychological, and the people who use them to trap the outspoken.

It was about the sort of people Naoot hopes to escape.

They include those who were outraged by her Facebook post that called the ceremonial slaughter of sheep during a Muslim holiday “the most horrible massacre committed by humans.” And those who filed a lawsuit against her in an Egyptian court, which convicted her of “insulting Islam.” She was sentenced to three years in prison in January, a verdict she was appealing while out on bail.

On Thursday, an Egyptian court rejected that appeal and upheld her sentence for “contempt of religion.”

Naoot is among a growing number of Egyptians who are in jail, are facing incarceration or have lost jobs for allegedly breaking a set of arcane blasphemy laws that the government is aggressively applying. Despite the long secular history of the Egyptian military, which now dominates the government, there have been more religious-based convictions during President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s time in office than under the Islamist government the former general replaced two years ago, according to human rights activists.

To supporters of Sissi, the courts have become a battleground in the fight with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood for the hearts and minds of Egypt’s masses. To his critics, religion has increasingly become a tool that helps Sissi strengthen his grip, silence opponents and gain moral authority.

Together, the arrests and convictions illustrate the extent to which freedom of expression has been curtailed since the revolution that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak five years ago.

“I don’t feel I am a criminal,” Naoot said after the poetry reading. “I don’t feel I am a sinner.”

Piety as a political tool

Egypt is in an existential limbo these days, as is the Arab world it once led. In quick succession, the idealism bred by the 2011 revolution gave way to an elected Muslim Brotherhood government led by Mohamed Morsi. But rule under religious ideologues proved so unpopular that Egyptians took to the streets again and backed Sissi, at the time the head of Egypt’s military, who overthrew Morsi. A year later, Sissi won a landslide electoral victory, promising to bring religious reforms.

But that has not happened.

As Islamic militancy has grown, and with a promised economic revival yet to emerge, there is nascent dissent against Sissi, even from some of his supporters, and broader frustration over rising taxes and declining state subsidies. The jailing of thousands of moderate Islamists and the outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood have deepened resentment among the movement’s followers and worried devout Muslims.

“The current government does not want to confront anything to do with religion, because otherwise it will be accused of being against religion,” said Samir Ghattas, a member of parliament. “Sissi is afraid of an Islamist backlash. He’s scared of losing popular support.”

Despite Egypt’s moderate veneer, the majority of its 90 million people are religiously conservative. So religious piety offers a way for Sissi to bolster his support base, mirroring a tactic many Arab leaders have used in the past to assert authority.

The blasphemy convictions not only undercut opponents who accuse the government of abandoning Islam, but they also suppress secular middle-class intellectuals, critics say.

“They want to control people by showing they have moral codes they are devoted to, so that no one can question them,” said Mina Tibet, a human rights activist, referring to Sissi and his followers. “It’s about their own interests, of preserving their power.”

“Sissi is fighting his political opponents,” he added. “He’s not fighting extremism.”

Government officials insist Egypt’s judiciary is independent, but human rights and legal-aid organizations describe it as complicit in the military regime’s goal of quashing dissent. What is clear is that none of the blasphemy convictions have been vocally denounced by Sissi or his loyalists.

“They want to present themselves as the protectors of Islam,” said Gamal Eid, a well-known human rights lawyer.

To Sissi’s conservative supporters, the blasphemy convictions are necessary to protect Islam.

“This kind of talk will only sow doubt and cannot be accepted,” said Mahmoud Draz, a religious scholar with al-Azhar, the centuries-old center of Sunni Muslim scholarship in Egypt. “God willing, Fatma Naoot will also receive a prison sentence.”

In February, four Coptic Christian teenagers were sent to prison for five years for a video that showed them laughing as they recited Koranic verses while one ran his hand against his neck, mimicking a beheading. The boys said the video was intended to mock the Islamic State’s violence, but the judge ruled that they had insulted Islam.

“I ask President Sissi to please intervene,” said Iman Gurguis, the mother of one of the teens. “How can he let injustice like this happen?”

Islam Behery, an Islamic researcher and former television show host, was given a one-year prison sentence in December for questioning the sources of some of the prophet Muhammad’s sayings. His television show, “With Islam,” was shut down.

And last month, Egypt’s justice minister was fired for saying he would throw the prophet Muhammad in jail if he perpetrated a crime. Those remarks, too, were widely viewed on social media as blasphemous.

“The main direction for the state is not to let the Islamists attack them for being too liberal,” said Amr Salama, a film director. “So they are becoming more conservative than the Islamists. What happened with Fatma Naoot would have never happened under the time of Mubarak, or under the time of the revolution, or under Morsi.”

The genesis of Naoot’s case

On that day in November 2014, Naoot was on her way to the bank, still fuming over an article she had read half an hour earlier in a Saudi newspaper. It was about a boy who had watched his father slaughter a sheep during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. When they returned home, the boy slit his baby sister’s throat, mimicking his father’s slaughter of the sheep, Naoot recalled.

She fired off her angry Facebook post. Within hours, social media exploded, with critics declaring that what she had written was blasphemous. A month later, three lawyers filed a lawsuit against her, claiming she had violated the law.

That law — Article 98 of the Egyptian penal code — orders a prison sentence of as long as five years and a hefty fine for anyone who insults or strives to hurt other religions, or spreads extremist religious thoughts. It was first used under President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s to rein in the Muslim Brotherhood, which was inciting attacks against Christians at the time.

Now critics say the vaguely worded law is being used to target Christians and moderate Muslims.

“It’s a kind of accumulation of the long fight between me and the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Naoot, who was a vocal critic of the Islamists. “They keep searching for some way to snatch me and put me in jail.”

Still, her conviction surprised many Egyptians. Naoot is a prominent, self-described supporter of Sissi, but he has yet to denounce her sentence. Moreover, when Sissi took office in 2014, he promised a “religious revolution” to fight extremism, urging that open-minded views and moderate interpretations of Islam to be taught in schools.

Instead, religion is increasingly used to portray Sissi, an observant Muslim, as the country’s omnipotent authority.

In December, when Egyptians voted for a new parliament, an Islamic preacher on state television indirectly referred to Sissi as “the shadow of God” and said that “whoever offends him, offends God.” In January, the Ministry of Religious Endowments warned preachers that any call to protest the fifth anniversary of the revolution would be viewed as a major crime in God’s eyes.

Naoot has another court appeal left, and if that fails and she is imprisoned, Sissi could still pardon her. But she said she would turn down a pardon to protest the blasphemy codes. As long as they exist, her ability to write and speak freely remains under threat, she said.

“My enemy is not the sentence, my enemy is not the judge,” she said. “My enemy is the law.”

Heba Habib contributed to this report.

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