CAIRO — ALTHOUGH Nasr Abu Zeid and his wife are happily married, they must divorce - an Egyptian court says.
A judge ordered the couple to end their marriage last week, saying that because the Cairo University professor's anti-Islamic writings showed he was an apostate, he couldn't stay married to a Muslim.
Intellectuals, journalists, writers, and other artists are outraged at yet another serious blow to freedom of expression in Egypt in what they see as an accelerating campaign to limit their rights.
"This case is not against me or my wife," Mr. Abu Zeid says, sitting in his sunny apartment in a desert community 20 miles west of Cairo. "It's against the whole society, not only in Egypt, but the whole world."
He and his wife have not gone out since the verdict, fearing that because he was pronounced an infidel, Islamic militants might try to kill him.
The latest attack on freedom of expression came just as intellectuals, journalists, and artists were battling passage of a controversial bill that increases penalties for libel and slander to at least five years in prison and a maximum fine of $6,000, up from six months and $150, and cancels an article that prevents detention of journalists for publishing offenses.
These groups say the Abu Zeid verdict highlights the fact that defenders of freedom of expression in Egypt have two foes: the government and Islamic fundamentalists.
Most alarming, secularists say, the verdict proves that Egypt's judiciary is being penetrated by moderate and militant Islamists, seeking to establish a strict Muslim state. "Our main battle against the terrorists is not only in Mallawi, our main battle is in court," says Negad Borai, head of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR).
For three years, Egyptian authorities have fought Islamic militants, who have targeted police, government officials, intellectuals, and foreigners for attack, in their campaign to overthrow the government. Mallawi, 200 miles south of Cairo, has become the latest battleground in this conflict that has killed more than 700 people.
Since the passage of the new penalties on freedom of expression last month, the semi-official and opposition press has fought the government's decision by threatening a one-day strike tomorrow if authorities don't repeal the bill. Thousands protested this week in a Cairo suburb in one of the largest opposition rallies in recent years, and opposition papers temporarily suspended publication.
Journalists say parliament passed the new amendments to stop press reports about official corruption.
But the government denies that freedom of expression is under attack. "The state is very keen to maintain, deepen, and consolidate freedom of expression," says Nabil Osman, chairman of the state information office. "All this is guaranteed by the Constitution."
As proof, Mr. Osman points to President Hosni Mubarak's meeting this week with the journalists' union, as part of an ongoing dialogue on the new amendments. "This public debate is very serious, very democratic, and it's unparalleled in the area where we live," he says.
In the midst of the battle against the new press penalties, Abu Zeid's verdict was announced, pushing intellectuals, artists, and others to throw support behind the Arabic literature professor, who says he will appeal the court's decision.
Secularists fear that Abu Zeid's case, filed by Islamic lawyers insulted by his interpretations of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, opens the way for anyone to send someone to court, claiming a person's thoughts, even actions, are against Islam.
"You are giving some people, who have no business at all to interfere, the right to determine what is in the mind or heart of somebody else," says Zien al-Abdin Fouad, a poet and political activist. "If we open this door, then it is not just freedom of thinking that is affected, but of breathing, of walking."
Critics of the ruling claim it is illegal, because Abu Zeid must publicly renounce his religion to be declared an apostate. They also say it puts Abu Zeid in danger because Islamic militants, who are revered for targeting infidels, may try to kill him.
For Islamic conservatives, their recent court victory has empowered them in their struggle to create a Muslim state. "The campaign will go on, and we will apply this verdict even by force," said Abd al-Sabour Shaheen, an Islamic studies professor at Cairo University and conservative cleric at one of Cairo's main mosques. "This is a warning for everybody that the flag of Islam will be higher than all other flags."
While the struggle to defend freedom of expression in Egypt is not easy, there have been some gains. In March, a Cairo court lifted the ban on a controversial epic film by Youssef Chahine, Egypt's most prominent director.
But the government has detained more opposition journalists in the last two years, according to the EOHR. Last October, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz survived an attack by Islamic militants, who called his works anti-Islamic.