'Abuse' of Islamic rule lands lawyer in court

Egyptian solicitor is accused of seeking fame by 'bombarding' famous people, including religious figures, with complaints of blasphemy

CAIRO // An Egyptian human rights lawyer has taken a fellow solicitor to court over perceived abuses of the Islamic doctrine of Hesba. Hesba entitles any Muslim to take legal action against anyone considered harmful to Islam. In Egypt, it is also used to defend what some consider to be immoral or against the country's national interest.

Naguib Gobraiel, however, is hoping to stop Nabih el Wahsh, who has filed countless Hesba cases against intellectuals, artists, religious leaders and government ministers for acts he deems immoral or blasphemous. "No one is immune from Nabih el Wahsh's bombardment of legal complaints and lawsuits, which have increased considerably lately," said Mr Gobraiel, who filed a case against Mr el Wahsh on Wednesday, accusing him of "ghawi shohra", or "seeking fame". If Mr el Wahsh is convicted he will be fined, and Mr Gobraiel hopes this will deter him from taking up further Hesba cases in the future. "This guy spares no one; he has been trying to drag famous people in all fields, including Muslim and Christian religious figures, to court."

Mr Gobraiel, who is the director of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organization, claimed that the Hesba cases had "reached alarming levels" and were attempts to "strip citizens of their nationality and closing human rights groups". Mr el Wahsh has filed what are believed to be more than 1,000 Hesba cases in the past decade, more than anybody else in the Arab world, which has led to accusations of fame-seeking.

"I don't care," said Mr el Wahsh. "Actually I wished that Naguib Gobraiel would file a lawsuit against me, it would be my chance to expose him and reveal the cases he adopts." Among Mr el Wahsh's recent actions was filing a litigation demanding that seven TV series be removed from Egyptian and Arab TV channels during Ramadan "for violating the Islamic law and presenting 'hot scenes'". Most of these cases never make it to the court and are usually dismissed by the prosecutor general.

However, Mr el Wahsh managed to drag a prominent feminist, Nawal el Saadawi, and her husband, Sherif Hetata, to court in 2001, seeking to divorce them - against the couple's will - on the ground that Mrs el Saadawi had expressed views that made her, according to Mr el Wahsh, an "infidel". He sought to void their marriage because a Muslim man cannot marry a non-believer. He lost that case. Then in 2007, Mr el Wahsh went after Mrs el Saadawi again, seeking to have her Egyptian citizenship annulled for her controversial views on religion, which are outlined in her books. Mrs el Saadawi won that case last year and returned in August from the United States, where she had been in self-exile.

Mr el Wahsh had a rare victory this year when he won a case in February that led to the stripping of Egyptian nationality of people married to Israelis. He estimated there were 30,000 such marriages, which he characterised as against Islamic law and a threat to national security. But the verdict was never implemented and now he is threatening to sue the interior minister, Habib el Adly, for failing to implement it.

Mr Gobraiel, who is a member of the Coptic religious minority in Egypt and who represents the Coptic Pope Shenouda III, said he wants to "stop el Wahsh from abusing the legal system, stifling freedom of expression and art, and scaring famous people, including Lebanese singers and actresses, and demanding compensation for them". Mrs el Saadawi welcomed Mr Gobraiel's move and criticised the government for "leaving this man to chase and abuse whoever he wants".

Mr el Wahsh last week filed a new litigation against Mrs el Saadawi for calling recently for the separation of state and religion. Islam is the official religion of the state in Egypt and Sharia is a major source of legislation. Criticising the "weak reaction" of the Egyptian government, Gamal Eid, the executive director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said Hesba cases had become "a threat hovering over the heads of all intellectuals in Egypt".

"Instead of conducting an open, reasonable dialogue based on intellectuals opinions, Hesba experts will rather start the legal chase and a chain of cases against those intellectuals," Mr Eid said. Mr el Wahsh is not alone among lawyers who have used Hesba cases to settle accounts with secularists. In 1995, the Hesba doctrine was used in Cairo Appeals Court against Nasr Abu Zeid, then a professor of Arabic literature at Cairo University, to separate him from his wife on the ground that his writings included opinions that would make him an apostate. The couple escaped to Holland where they remain.

Since then, the state has given the prosecutor general the right to limit the number of Hesba cases that make it to court. This has not stopped Mr el Wahsh and others from filing cases. "Such useless cases waste the time of the judiciary and incite strife in society, sometimes between people and the government, at other times between Muslims and Christians, which defeats the whole purpose of justice. I'm trying to stop this absurdity and make el Wahsh pay the price for his abuse of the legal system," Mr Gobraiel said.

He has filed a Hesba case of his own in 2004 demanding that the Egyptian film I Love Cinema, about a fanatical Christian father, be banned for alleged insults to Christianity. "This was the only time I filed such a case," he said. "I filed it on behalf of the Church, not for me personally or my human rights group." The enmity between the two lawyers is not new. Mr Gobraiel, 57, claimed that he was physically attacked by Mr el Wahsh and others early last year when he was in court representing Mohammed Hegazy, a Muslim man who converted to Christianity and was seeking state certification of his conversion. No action was taken against Mr el Wahsh.