CAIRO – An Egyptian court on Saturday rejected the second of two lawsuits brought by ultraconservative Islamists accusing a Christian media mogul of insulting Islam when he relayed a cartoon online of Mickey Mouse with a beard and Minnie in a face veil.
The judge ruled the plaintiff was not eligible to file the religious defamation lawsuit and sent the case back to the state prosecutor's office for further investigation. The first lawsuit against Sawiris was thrown out by a different court earlier this week on similar grounds.
Businessman Naguib Sawiris Saturday used his Twitter account -- the same way he spread the original images -- to express relief.
"I thank God for this ruling because I feel that there is still hope," he wrote. "Congratulations to an open, free and smiling Egypt that respects all religions."
Sawiris angered Muslim hard-liners in June by relaying the Mickey and Minnie cartoon, which parodied the growing influence of Islamists in Egypt. Sawiris tweeted an apology and removed the post after the uproar among conservatives, but that did not deter some from pursuing legal action.
The cases are two of many brought by conservative lawyers in recent months seeking to punish individuals they deem as having offended Islam.
They highlight the newfound sense of empowerment among followers of the ultraconservative Salafi trend of Islam in Egypt since the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak last year in a popular uprising.
In the broad spectrum of Islamic thought, Salafism is very conservative and is partly inspired by Saudi Arabia's puritanical Wahhabi interpretation of the religion.
Many Salafis were jailed and tortured during Mubarak's three-decade rule. Their newly-formed Al-Nour party won 25 percent of seats in parliament in the first elections since his toppling and has emerged as the second most powerful group in Egypt after the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.
The mere filing of such blasphemy cases by Salafi lawyers has raised concern among rights groups and liberals who are concerned about threats to freedom of speech.
In his ruling, the judge dismissed Saturday's suit and fined the plaintiff a little less than $10 for the court's time. The judge said the cartoon did not cause the plaintiff, a hard-line lawyer named Ali Dergham, any harm.
Ishak Ibrahim, a religious rights researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the country's vaguely worded blasphemy laws allow anyone who disagrees with someone's beliefs to use the courts to prosecute that person.
"People come and try you because of your belief or your expression of that belief," Ibrahim said.
He said that according to Egyptian law, contempt of religion cases should be filed by the state prosecutor's office, particularly if the case is to be reviewed by a criminal court.
Egyptian law contains a principle called hisba, which allows any Muslim to take to court anyone thought to be harming the Muslim community.
The law was amended to limit who can file such cases after a group of ultraconservative lawyers accused a prominent scholar of apostasy in 1995 for his contemporary interpretation of Islam.
An Egyptian court ordered that Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid divorce his Muslim wife on the grounds that his writings made him an apostate from Islam.
The couple refused and fled Egypt for fear of being attacked.
The case outraged Arab intellectuals, who saw it as an attack on freedom of expression. Abu Zeid later appealed the ruling and won, but spent most of his remaining years abroad.
Islamist lawyers continued to file suits throughout the Mubarak years, but Ibrahim says the practice has increased since the former president's ouster.
State prosecutors also sporadically bring to court cases of defamation of religion.
Ibrahim said the state prosecutor's office filed a suit against a Christian teacher from the southern province of Assiut last month after a Muslim colleague claimed he had insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Ibrahim said the man was sentenced to six years in jail.
Also in February, one of Egypt's best known comedians was sentenced to three months in jail for offending Islam in his films.
Adel Imam, who has appeared in dozens of films and 10 plays in a career that spans nearly 50 years, was convicted in absentia and has the right to appeal.
Sawiris is a favorite political target of the ultraconservatives. In an attempt to offset their power, he helped found a secular-leaning political after last year's uprising. It is part of a liberal coalition in the newly elected parliament that won just nine percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament.
After the cartoon incident, Salafis launched a campaign calling on Muslims in Egypt to boycott his mobile phone company, Mobinil. Shares of Mobinil and Orascom Telecom, which Sawiris founded, fell briefly on the Egyptian stock exchange that month.
Salafi lawmaker Mamdouh Ismail, who filed a complaint to the attorney general's office regarding the cartoon, maintained Saturday that the cartoon was offensive and harmful.
"He posted caricatures mocking Islam, and we see this as a contempt of Islam," Ismail said.