Professor in Egypt ordered to divorce wife he loves

CAIRO — CAIRO -- The divorce order from the court to Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid came as a surprise to the Egyptian college professor -- and his wife.

Neither had asked for a divorce. Neither wants it. After three years together, they describe themselves as quite happily married.


"I will hold onto her, and she will hold onto me. They will have to kill us to execute this order," the 52-year-old professor of Arabic literature at Cairo university said Friday.

Muslim fundamentalists sought the divorce order, claiming that Mr. Abu Zeid's academic writings prove him to be an infidel and ineligible to be married to a Muslim woman.


It was the latest blow to writers and journalists in Egypt, who say their right of expression is being attacked by both Islamic radicals and the government.

The ruling this month officially ends Mr. Abu Zeid's marriage, and also endangers his life. One Muslim group last week declared that he should now be slain for living with Ibtihal Younis, 38, a fellow college professor who teaches French.

It is not an idle threat. Farag Fouda, a secular writer, was shot to death in 1992 for "defaming Islam," as his attacker put it. He was an outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalists.

The assaults on the press have occurred against a backdrop of intensifying violence in the struggle between the fundamentalists and anyone not following their strict interpretation of Islamic law -- from the government to the public, and the press. In the last three years they have tried to undermine the government of President Hosni Mubarak by attacking civilians and government officials and even foreigners. More than 700 persons have died in those clashes since 1992.

Police have put patrols around Mr. Abu Zeid's home outside Cairo. But the professor said he cannot bear life under guard.

"Of course I want to live. I don't want to be a martyr," he said. "But I don't want this threat to control my life. How will I be able to get into my classroom? How will the students look at me? Will TC they pity me? I don't want that."

Journalists and other writers have rallied to the defense of Mr. Abu Zeid. But they also feel besieged by the government. Smarting from criticism in the press, the government recently announced tough new measures that journalists say will subject them to prison for criticizing the government.

The Egyptian journalists' syndicate called a rare strike of the nation's papers this weekend to protest the new measure, but backed away from the threat after President Mubarak promised to submit the new laws to the Supreme Court.


Egypt's press is much more limited than the media in the West. Direct criticism of President Mubarak, for example, is prohibited. All television and radio is state-owned, and newspapers must be licensed.

But by Middle East standards, the press in Egypt is lively and critical. An intellectual elite of academics and writers carries on a robust debate of issues through newspaper columns. Their barbs are often cloaked in euphemisms, and the government generally ignores the colloquy unless writers become too blunt.

Much of the debate now is between Islamic hard-liners who want a religious government and Muslim moderates or believers in a secular government who chafe at the restrictions pressed by the hard-liners.

Mr. Abu Zeid argued in a series of books that the Koran must be interpreted in light of modern issues and not in its most literal sense. He argued, for example, that heiresses must receive shares equal to those of other heirs to estates. The Koran specifies that women shall receive only half as much as men.

"He is a dangerous man," said Sheik Yusef El-Badry, one of those who forced the divorce.

Sheik Badry has a stack of the professor's books and writings. He gingerly pulls examples of what he calls heresy. He holds them with his fingertips, as though loath to touch the unclean evidence.


Sheik Badry and others asked a civil court in 1993 to declare Mr. Abu Zeid an apostate, or non-believer, under a theory of Islamic law that any Muslim can sue to stop an offense against the religion.

A lower court refused to apply the Islamic principle and ruled against the petition. But in a surprise reversal, an appeals court on June 14 sided with the fundamentalists. The court ruled that Mr. Abu Zeid was an apostate and therefore could not be married to a Muslim woman.

"We were both shocked. I had to take a shower in order to get myself together," Mr. Abu Zeid said. "But from the first moment, we both decided we are not going to surrender. We are not going to leave each other, whatever the price.

"And we are not going to escape through political asylum. Escaping now would ruin all the resistance we have put up so far," he said.

Mr. Abu Zeid said he hopes another appeals court will prevent enforcement of the ruling, though an appeal is legally difficult.

Sheik Badry defended the court ruling.


"In your church, if a man goes outside the religion, he is excommunicated," Sheik Badry argued. "Or if he was found to be a traitor in your country, would he be free to stay with his wife? No. He would be thrown in jail. Abu Zeid is a traitor to our religion."

"It's a victory for the fundamentalists, but a very dangerous one," said Ahmed Abdel Hefez, a trustee of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "It opens the doors for other cases against anyone, by anyone who believes their opinions are outside of Islam."

"Politically, I believe this verdict is a very strong sign the government is weak and corrupt," said Said al-Ashmawy, a former high court justice who has been threatened for his own writings on Islam. "The judicial system is out of its control.

"We are all being intimidated: frightened of being murdered or put in a prison or separated from our spouses," he said.

The ruling is "a license for murder," agreed Mohamed el-Sayed Said, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "Any fanatic can interpret killing Abu Zeid as implementing Islamic justice."

Indeed, the Jihad (Holy Struggle) Islamic organization sent a statement to the Al-Hayatt Arabic newspaper in London last week proclaiming that "it is legitimate to shed Nasr Abu Zeid's blood, whether anyone likes it or not."


The Abu Zeid affair came on the heels of a move by the government to crack down on the press for its own reasons. In May the government amended laws on the press with provisions for detention and imprisonment of journalists for such crimes as "deriding government officials and institutions."

Shocked journalists said the broad wording of the new amendments and the tough prison penalties are an attempt to stifle growing press criticism of corruption in the government.

"It can be used to scare journalists, to terrorize them and to affect their opinions," said Salama Ahmed Salama, a managing editor of the Arabic daily Al Ahram.

Nabil Osman, chief of the State Information Service, argued the new amendments are aimed at curbing an irresponsible press. "The president has been warning for seven or eight years now against breaches of privacy that went beyond the limits of decency and shattered whole families," he said in an interview. "What concerns us is the innocent civilians whose reputation has been smeared," he said.

Journalists announced a general strike for yesterday, the first since 1951. But after meeting with President Mubarak Thursday, they agreed to wait until the new amendments are submitted to the Supreme Constitutional Court.