The curse of the Hesba lawsuits

Egyptian courts are being flooded these days with so-called 'Hesba' lawsuits targeting outspoken writers, film makers and poets. According to Islamic law, anyone can file a Hesba lawsuit if they believe God has been insulted. But some suggest that money, fame and political repression play an equally important part in the recent rise of Hesba cases.
Sheikh Youssef Al-Badry, the uncontested champion of Hesba lawsuits, is seen leaving a Cairo courthouse. © BBC

BEIRUT, August 18, 2008 (MENASSAT) – The latest figure to get tangled up in the murky waters of Hesba law suits is movie director Enad El-Dighaidy, whose film, Diaries of a Teenage Girl, has attracted the wrath of an attorney affiliated with Egypt's ruling NDP party.

The unnamed lawyer is said to have vast experience in Hesba lawsuits and has asked the Sheikh of Egypt's highest religious council, Al Azhar, to punish the female director with 80 lashes for defaming the country.

Sources told MENASSAT that the same lawyer has sought similar punishment against an Egyptian actress who appeared unveiled in a film. Last year, he was one of the lawyers who lobbied for putting Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Al-Dustour, on trial for publishing pieces questioning the health of Egypt's 81-year-old President Mubarak.

Blogger Kareem Amer

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI, an Egyptian NGO) recently commissioned a study of the Hesba cases, which it has called "a nightmare for authors and artists."  ANHRI argued that the large increase in such lawsuits could not have happened "without the blessing of the Egyptian government."

"There was a significant increase in Hesba cases in both 2007 and 2008. Most of the lawsuits have been political Hesba cases," ANHRI Director Gamal Eid told MENASSAT.

Bloggers too have been targeted by the Hesba frenzy.

Two years ago, Kareem Amer, a 21-year-old student from Al Azhar University, had expressed his strong dissatisfaction with the Egyptian regime and the teachings of his university on his blog.

When in early 2006, Amer wrote that "the professors and sheikhs at Al Azhar, who stand against anyone who thinks freely, will end up in the dustbin of history," he was expelled from his university and his professors filed a complaint with the General Prosecutor.

The Hesba suit against Amer was first rejected by a regular court but was upheld by an appeals court. In February 2007, Kareem Amer was handed a four-year prison sentence for "insulting Islam and the Egyptian President and inciting sedition."

It was the first time Egypt sentenced a blogger to prison.

Sheikh Al-Badry, Hesba champion
The latest wave of Hesba suits ca be traced back to the early 1990s, when a number of Islamic lawyers and conservative clerics began specializing in Hesba suits against intellectuals and writers.

The most well-known among them being the flamboyant conservative religious cleric, Sheikh Youssef Al-Badry.

Over the years, Al-Badry has targeted countless Egyptian writers and poets, claiming that their works would "lead to apostasy and corrupt Egypt's youth."

At one occasion, Al-Badry sued the secular poet Ahmed Moataz el Hegazi for insulting him in one his poems, a case which was ruled in favor of the Sheikh. 

Hegazi responded by refusing to pay the 20,000 Egytian pounds (roughly US$ 3,500) fine, saying he would not give money to someone like Al-Badry who "opposes freedom of thought and expression."

As a result, the court ordered Hegazi's furniture sold in auction in order to settle the ruling.

Prior to the Hegazi case, Al-Badry launched an infamous Hesba case in 1993 against Islamic thinker and professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, whose perspective on the Qu’ran was considered highly controversial by some.

In his writings, Abu-Zayd argued that the revelation of the Quran is a historical event and that interpretation of it should therefore be based on an examination of the social and historical context in which it was revealed.

Al-Badry ended up winning the case and Abu Zaid was declared a heretic by the court and was subsequently declared divorced from his wife, Dr. Ibthal Younis. Abu Zaid left Egypt for The Netherlands following the ruling.

'Hesba star lawyers'

A similar case was launched against Egyptian intellectual and writer Nawal el-Saadawi in the mid-1990s after she told a newspaper that prostrating oneself to the holy Kaba in Mecca was a "vestige of a pagan practice."

Soon after, numerous Egyptian religious leaders called for El-Saadawi's death and she too had a Hesba case filed against her.

Following the uproar over Abu Zaid's case in 1998, the Egyptian government made what was seen as an attempt to curtail the avalanche of Hesba lawsuits by asking parliament to implement legislative changes that would allow only the General Prosecutor to file Hesba cases, which would be based upon complaints from individuals.

But judging by the high amount of Hesba cases filed in Egyptian courts at the moment, these individual complaints have spiraled to new levels.

ANHRI director Eid told MENASSAT that a Cairo court recently handled twenty different Hesba lawsuits in just one day.

Eid said that the fact that lawyers can acquire both money and fame by filing Hesb lawsuits is a factor in the recent rise in the number of Hesba lawsuits.

Because of this, ANHRI recently made the unusual request from the media, asking them not to publish the names of Hesba lawyers "to avoid making false stars out of them."