CAIRO – A woman activist who posted nude pictures of herself on her blog to protest limits on free expression has triggered an uproar in Egypt, drawing condemnations from conservatives and liberals alike.
Some liberals feared that the posting by 20-year-old university student Aliaa Magda Elmahdy would taint them in the eyes of deeply conservative Egyptians ahead of Nov. 28 parliamentary elections in which they are trying to compete with fundamentalist Islamic parties.
Nudity is strongly frowned upon in Egyptian society, even as an art form. Elmahdy's posting is almost unheard of in a country where most women in the Muslim majority wear the headscarf and even those who don't rarely wear clothes exposing the arms or legs in public.
Elmahdy wrote on her blog that the photographs -- which show her standing wearing only stockings -- are "screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy." The blog has received 1.5 million hits since she posted the photos earlier this week.
The posting comes at a time when Egypt, a nation of some 85 million people, is polarized between Islamists and liberals ahead of the elections, the first since the February ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak. Members of the most hardline Islamic movement in Egypt, the Salafis, have warned voters during their campaigns that liberals will corrupt Egypt's morals.
"This hurts the entire secular current in front of those calling themselves the people of virtue," Sayyed el-Qimni, a prominent self-described secular figure, said referring to Islamists.
"It's is a double disaster. Because I am liberal and I believe in the right of personal freedom, I can't interfere," el-Qimni said Wednesday night on one of Egypt's popular TV political talk shows, "90 Minutes."
The April 6 movement, one of the most prominent liberal activist groups that led the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, issued a statement denying claims by some on the Web that Elmahdy is a member of the group.
The posting prompted furious discussions on Internet social media sites, with pages for and against her put up on Facebook.
One activist, Ahmed Awadallah, praised her in a Tweet, writing, "I'm totally taken back by her bravery."
A supporter, who identified himself as Emad Nasr Zikri, wrote in a comment on Elmahdy's blog, "We need to learn how to separate between nudity and sex." He said that before fundamentalist influence in Egypt, "there were nude models in art school for students to draw."
Some 100 people liked his comment, while thousands flooded the site with insults. Some denounced Elmahdy as a "prostitute" and "mentally sick" or urged police to arrest her.
Elmahdy did not reply to attempts by The Associated Press to contact her.
Her move comes as Salafis have become more assertive in pushing their attitude that women should be kept out of the public eye, promoting a Saudi Arabia-style segregation of the sexes. On Salafi parties' campaign banners, photos of the few female candidates are replaced by drawings of a flower.
During a recent election rally in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, Salafists covered up a public statue that depicted mermaids. Salafi clerics appearing on TV talks shows have refused to appear face-to-face with female TV hosts, unless the presenter puts on a headscarf or in one case, a barrier was placed between the two. Most recently, an Islamist preacher crashed into a university musical concert in a Nile Delta province of Mansoura, saying music was forbidden by Islam and that he wanted to "promote virtue and prevent vice" -- the term used for the mission of Saudi Arabia's religious police.
Women rights activist Nehad Abou el-Qomsan said conservatives "keep adding layers to cover up the women and deny their existence."
But, she said, what Elmahdy did "is also rejected because posing nude is a form of body abuse."
Elmahdy and her boyfriend Kareem Amer, also a controversial blogger, have challenged Egypt's social strictures before. Earlier this year, they posted mobile phone video footage of themselves debating with managers of a public park who threw them out for public displays of affection.
Amer, who spent four years in prison for blog posting deemed insulting to Islam and for calling Mubarak a "symbol of tyranny," chided liberals who condemned Elmahdy.
"I think we should not be afraid of those in power or Islamists, as much as we should be worried of politicians claiming to be liberal," he wrote on his Facebook page. "They are ready to sacrifice us to avoid tarnishing their image."