Legal Eagles Use Egypt's Laws To Enforce Practice of Islam

MUSLIM fundamentalists are taking Egypt's leading lady to court for showing a little too much of herself.

The incriminating evidence is a photo of the country's most famous heartthrob, actress Youssra Mohamed Nassim, wearing a slinky black-and-yellow outfit in a publicity still from her latest film.

With characteristic drama, Youssra dismisses the outrage over her "almost naked" appearance in the role of an opportunistic prostitute. "I can't get scared, because I was doing the right role with the right costume," she says. "It's very stupid. I know exactly what I'm doing, I respect what I'm doing, and I'll keep on doing it all my life until I die."

But Youssra is only the latest target of Muslim fundamentalists, who are using laws to fight artists, liberal intellectuals, and journalists they say are displaying anti-Islamic behavior. The campaign began several years ago and is gaining momentum after several high-profile successes. The government has been forced to step in, recently introducing draft legislation to counter it.

The crusading Islamist lawyers say they are fighting to protect society by preserving Islamic values. The campaign is being promoted by Sheikh Youssef al Badri, a leading fundamentalist lawyer, who claims inspiration from religious rulings that order Muslims to take a stand against evil or risk condemnation for condoning it.

Sheikh Badri says he uses only legal means, unlike Muslim militants who are trying to set up a pure Islamic state through violent attacks on government targets. "We have four weapons: pen, paper, law, and the courts," Badri says. "We have no chains, no guns, no bombs."

Badri's most notable success is a case against liberal Islamic scholar Naser Hamed Abu Zeid. Mr. Abu Zeid was convicted of heresy last spring, declared not a practicing Muslim, and thus ordered to divorce his wife because a Muslim woman is not allowed to be married to a non-Muslim man. The couple has left Egypt while the case is under appeal.

Badri has inspired other freelance defenders of Islam to file a flurry of lawsuits. One of their favorite targets is the anti-Islamist magazine Rose al-Youssef. In one instance the magazine provoked its opponents to sue simply by running a headline with the words "sex" and "Koran" on the same line of text in the same font and color.

The magazine's stance has created serious problems for its editor, Mahmoud al-Tohami. In December he was sentenced to two years in jail for publishing an article that accused Badri and other lawyers like him of conducting an inquisition.

The lawyers use a legal provision called hezba that allows any citizen to prosecute someone for offending or damaging society. They also use sections of the criminal code dealing with public morality and libel, taking advantage of a defamation law that makes it easy to charge writers with publishing harmful news.

Nearly half of the 84 libel suits filed last year were brought by Islamists, the Egyptian Center for Human Rights, Legal Aid says.

The authorities have shown no interest in changing the defamation law, widely seen as an attempt to prevent reporting on government corruption. But the court rulings don't necessarily reflect official policy: In some of the extreme cases, they embarrass the government.

President Hosni Mubarak has just proposed legislation designed to control the use of hezba. Government newspapers say it suggests that hezba charges be screened by the general prosecutor to determine whether they warrant prosecution. That would prevent the provision from being used for "revenge, defamation, and the intimidation of citizens" by the crusading Islamists, who have filed about 60 hezba cases in the past two years.

"I think all the officials in Egypt ... and of course the minister of culture, are against this kind of hezba because it is against the freedom of creation, freedom of thought, freedom of everything," says Gaber Asfour, a senior official at the culture ministry.

But analysts say the government is partly responsible for the trend by supporting conservative religious clerics and trying to present itself as more Islamic than the fundamentalists. Restrictions on political freedoms as part of a clampdown on the Islamic opposition have also narrowed the options for public debate, turning the courts into the arena of a cultural struggle.

"There is a general atmosphere in society of restricting freedom of expression, and this is encouraged by the government," says political analyst Mustapha Kamel Sayyid. "Journalists have been arrested with no reason. They were not even tried before the courts because there were no specific charges ... against them. Then these violations of freedom of speech culminated with the adoption of the [defamation] law."

Some Islamic activists also condemn the climate of intolerance, official and religious. Extremist clerics and lawyers get a cool reception from the influential Islamic opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is eager to be seen supporting democratic values in its quest to set up a state based on strict Islamic law and tries to disassociate itself from practices that give political Islam a bad image.

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