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Coptic Christian billionaire taken to court accused of 'insulting Islam'

January 9, 2012 | 12:48 pm

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REPORTING FROM CAIRO -- Christian billionaire Naguib Sawiris is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 14 after he was charged Monday with "blasphemy and insulting Islam" by Cairo prosecutors, state newspaper Al Ahram quoted judiciary sources as saying on its website.

The telecommunications mogul, who also heads the secular Free Egyptians political party, is charged with posting a photograph on his Twitter account last June that depicted a bearded Mickey Mouse and a veiled MInnie Mouse. A group of Islamist lawyers, including ultraconservative Mamdouh Ismail, filed a lawsuit immediately after the cartoon was circulated. 

Despite his formal apology, Sawiris' stunt was seen as mockery of Islam by this overwhelmingly Muslim country. Various religious groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis, led a nationwide campaign to boycott products and services offered by Sawiris' companies.

Sawiris has had an increasingly tense relationship with Islamists. Differences over religion and politics further sharpened after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February and Sawiris, chairman of Orascom Telecom and a major shareholder in cellphone service provider Mobinil, helped fund and establish the liberal Free Egyptians Party.

Sawiris, a Coptic Christian, has openly opposed the prospect that Islamists will draft a new constitution heavily influenced by sharia, or Islamic law. He recently told a television interviewer that he enjoys his evening glass of whiskey. The comment was aimed at suggestions that Islamist parties may attempt to ban alcohol following what appears to be a sweeping victory in the nation's parliamentary elections.

"I'm quite fanatic about my scotch in the evening, so I don’t like anybody telling me that I can't drink," he said.

The Free Egyptians Party is running a distant third to the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Party of Al Nour. The Freedom and Justice Party has so far won 41% of the seats in the new assembly. Al Nour has won an estimated 20%. Free Egyptians are expected to win about 10%. Official final results, which await runoffs on Tuesday and Wednesday, will be announced Jan. 13. 

Sawiris' lawyer said his client is yet to receive any formal notification of the prosecution's charges. He added that Islamists are attempting to defame Sawiris and damage the credibility of his political party.

Sawiris has not commented on the matter. The charge is a misdemeanor, and Sawiris could face a year in prison if convicted.

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-- Amro Hassan

Photo: Egyptian Coptic businessman and politician Naguib Sawiris. Credit: Sandro Pace / Associated Press

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