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Blasphemy or democracy? Egypt cleric tears up, burns New Testament at US Embassy

News Analysis

Updated at 3:49 a.m. ET: CAIRO – An ultra-conservative Islamist cleric in Egypt faces charges of blasphemy after he allegedly tore up and burned copies of the New Testament at a protest in front of the American Embassy in Cairo.

Ahmed Mohammed Mahmoud Abdallah, also known as Sheikh Abu Islam, is part owner of a private ultra-conservative Islamic TV station known as Al Uma and was participating in demonstrations against a U.S.-made movie denigrating the Prophet Muhammad that swept the Muslim world in the last month.

Egypt’s General Prosecutor accused Abu Islam and his son, the channel's executive director, of insulting religion – in this case Christianity. 

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The case is a rare example of the country’s often-criticized blasphemy laws being used against someone who allegedly insulted a religion that is not Islam. That trial is scheduled to begin September 30.

Another case that has received less attention illustrates the quandary Egyptians find themselves in amid the explosion of protests and expression following the revolution that deposed President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Khaled Abdullah / Reuters

Protests ignited by a controversial film that ridicules Islam's Prophet Muhammad spread throughout Muslim world.

On Wednesday, a 24-year-old self-described atheist appeared in court to face charges that he was in contempt of religion by posting links to websites that promoted atheism.

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Saber Eyead Zaki also allegedly posted the link to the controversial video that has triggered global protests known as the "Innocence of Muslims" on his Facebook page.

Egyptian human rights organizations have say that Zaki has been tortured and was being held at an undisclosed location.  His house was searched without a proper warrant when no one was home, they contend.

A video posted online shows the moment he was taken into custody – a mob hurls insults at him and try to attack him as he is being whisked away by police.

Journalist Ethar El-Katatney joins from Cairo, Egypt to describe the demonstrations in Egypt and how reaction an anti-Muslim film is being used to channel frustrations.

As these simultaneous trials show, even sharing an idea is now enough to land you in jail in Egypt. This may seem a contradiction – given that many Egyptians cite the explosion of free speech, alongside the right to protest, as a major gain of the revolution. 

So the key question many Egyptians face is: Does more media and the right to protest mean freer speech?

The trials also are the latest examples that the government is taking a zero-tolerance approach to those who would question or criticize religion, let alone mock it and insult it.

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Traditionally, this has been a one-way street, with most of those being tried cited for insulting Islam, including famed Egyptian icon and actor Adel Imam. Most insults to Christianity in Egypt have gone unpunished from references in media to derogatory and inflammatory comments made publicly. 

The two cases, along with others since the revolution, have really challenged Egyptians definition of free speech and whether the legal system in Egypt is capable of defending the right of people to express themselves freely especially when it comes to the issue of religion. 

Journalist Mona Eltahawy joins from Cairo, Egypt to describe the protests that surged throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Pacific Rim this week, and what the true source that caused the outbursts of violence.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to come is whether such limitations will be enshrined in the forthcoming constitution.

Many are already ringing the alarm bells that the new constitution may enshrine restrictions on free speech rather protecting it. If so, many Egyptians will undoubtedly feel that perhaps the one gain the revolution produced in the short run was merely an illusion. 

Egypt's new president Mohammed Morsi addressed the United Nations General Assembly and urged an end to the civil war in Syria.

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