On October 7, 2012, the office of the Egyptian General Prosecutor decided to start an official investigation accusing me of "blasphemy" -- or, as they call it, "insulting Islam." My crime was expressing my atheist beliefs on my Twitter account. The Egyptian authorities also arrested my friend Alber Saber on similar charges. He remains in jail to this day.
Egypt has signed many international treaties that ensure freedom of expression, but the Egyptian penal code still has approximately 20 laws that make certain opinions a crime.
The specified offenses include criticizing the president, the parliament, the military, or the judiciary. Criticizing a foreign president, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Bashar Al-Assad, is also a crime, punishable with a three-year term in prison.
When I learned of the charges against me and Saber, I remembered my friend Kareem Amer, a famous Egyptian blogger who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2007 for insulting both Islam and then-President Mubarak. Kareem suffered a great deal in prison. He was tortured several times, and spent a long time in solitary confinement under horrible conditions.
The latest threat of legal action against me has also stirred up memories of my previous imprisonment last year, when I was imprisoned in Egypt for 10 months for the crime of "insulting the institution of the military." Since then, two corrupt police officers, Sayyed Abdel-Kareem and Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, have declared that they want to file an additional case against me. They're both accusing me of insulting Islam during my imprisonment in El-Marg Prison. They've tried to use this new case as a form of blackmail to keep me from speaking about the torture I faced while I was there. (Their accusation is entirely separate from the case brought against me by the prosecutor, by the way.)
Alber is not the only opinion prisoner in Egypt accused of criticizing Islam. There are at least six Christians (three of them under the age of 18), four atheists, and one Shiite who now face the same charges, and it is no surprise that not one of them is a Sunni Muslim. It's a new Inquisition happening in Egypt in the twenty-first century while the whole world remains silent.
It started last year when Ayman Youseef Mansour, a 22-year-old Christian blogger, was sentenced on October 22, 2011 to three years in prison because he criticized Islam on his Facebook page. Egyptian courts later refused his appeal, denying him his right to reconsider the severity of the sentence.
Ayman's case was followed in January 2012 by the case of Gamal Abdou Masoud, 17, a Christian from Asyut in Upper Egypt. Gamal was tagged on Facebook in a picture that criticized Islam. Angry mobs surrounded his house because of this picture, burned his house and the houses of other Christians in the village, and forced his family to leave. The police didn't arrest anyone from the mobs. Instead, Gamal was sentenced to three years in prison for "insulting Islam."
Then, in April 2012, another Christian was imprisoned on the same charges. Makarem Diab Said, a teacher (also from Asyut), was sentenced to six years simply for using some aggressive words against Islam when he was quarrelling with one of his colleagues at work.
Last month, on September 12, a court in Sohag sentenced another Christian, Bishoy El-Beheri to six years in prison for criticizing Islam and criticizing President Mohammed Morsi. This case is very similar to Kareem's. The only difference is that in Kareem's case he got only one year in jail for criticizing Mubarak, while criticizing the present president leads to three years.
Earlier this month, the Al-Ahram newspaper reported that two Coptic Christian children ,Nabil Nagy Rizk, 10, and Mina Nady Farag, 9, were arrested for insulting Islam because they were caught playing with papers that happened to have some verses of the Quran written on them. The kids were released later, but the case against them hasn't been dropped yet, meaning that they can be jailed also for three years.
On October 6, a female student, known only by her initials of "B.R.," went to the police station in Sharkia asking for help, complaining that her mother tried to poison her. But the authorities decided that the student and her boyfriend should be jailed because they are atheists who believe that premarital sex is not a sin.
It is not only atheists and Christians who are being jailed in Egypt for blasphemy. A Shiite man, Mohammed Asfour, was sentenced to three years in prison last July for speaking against the crimes made by followers of Mohammed the prophet of Islam.
Many others are in prison on the same charges and more will surely follow. The General Prosecutor has just sent a case against Google officials to the State Security Investigations department in Egypt, accusing the Internet company of failing to block the movie Innocence of Muslims from its search engine. The prosecutor has also started an investigation against the poet Hisham al-Gokh, whom he accused of insulting religion in his poetry.
These activists suffer because Egypt doesn't have an independent judiciary. Many cases take decades to go before Egyptian courts. But when the issue is political, they can finish the case in a few days, just as they finished my trial 12 days after my arrest in March 2011. They are now doing the same with Alber. Obviously there is a political reason for the Egyptian regime to jail him. They wish to intimidate Christians and other minorities to force them to leave the country. That is why Alber's trial is being processed so fast in comparison with other cases in Egypt. If there was a proper international response, perhaps they would proceed with more caution. Alber expects to be sentenced to three years' imprisonment within a short time. Meanwhile, though, there is a campaign supporting his freedom on Facebook and Twitter, which is gaining momentum every day.
The worst part is that this phenomenon of jailing bloggers on charges of "insulting religion" is now becoming widespread in Muslim countries. In Saudi Arabia, young blogger Hamza Kashgari is now in jail on blasphemy charges, and could face the death sentence. In Tunisia, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji were sentenced on March 28, 2012 to seven and a half years in prison. In Morocco, Mohammed Socrates is spending two years in jail for his atheism, but the authorities in Morocco were smart enough to accuse him of narcotics trafficking, and there is no need to say that he confessed under torture. One might even include Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old girl shot by the Pakistani Taliban because of her public calls for secularism and female education.
Religions are just collections of beliefs which can't be proved. I still can't imagine that in the twenty-first century there are people going to prison because they don't believe that someone walked on water, a virgin gave birth to a child, or a man flew to heaven on a donkey. Tolerating this new Inquisition moves our world back to the Middle Ages, and this could have devastating consequences for our lives.
Maikel Nabil Sanad is an Egyptian activist and leader of the "No to Compulsory Military Service" Movement. He became a prisoner of conscience after boycotting military trials in August 2011 and spent 130 days on a hunger strike. He is also a member of the board of Cyberdissidents.org.
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.