Alber Saber was arrested in August 2012 on charges of contempt of religion. Saber’s mother called the police asking for protection as a mob surrounded the house. An outspoken blogger who posted many videos critical of religion, Saber was sentenced to three years in prison in December and appealed the decision. He was released for the first time in four months and left Egypt on 26 January, the day of his appeal session.
Why did you decide to leave the country?
I did not want to leave. If it were up to me I would stay and defend myself even if I were to be executed, but many people were suffering because of me and had already suffered enough.
There was nothing I could do but listen to those around me who have suffered because of me and my cause. People congratulate me on leaving. How can I be happy away from my family, friends and loved ones?
The people who should be congratulated are the ones in power. The Egyptian government is now safe from the shameful position they took.
They are safe from the criticism that initially forced them to let me go. They are safe from the possibility of me actually gaining my rights and the rights of many others.
Congratulations should be offered to those ruling Egypt with backward laws that violate the most basic of human rights.
What was your security situation when you got out of prison? Did you go back to your old house or did you have to relocate?
When I was released I left from the security directorate instead of the police station because I had been attacked earlier when I was at the station.
A high rank at the directorate, I don’t know his name, told me not to go back to my neighbourhood because they would be unable to protect me. He was not threatening me.
How do you feel about the fact that your lawyers tried to defend you by arguing that you did not say what you were accused of saying; rather than argue that you had the right to say it regardless of whom it offended?
I refuse to deny what I said. I did compare religions and discuss their differences, I did critique and criticise them. I never denied my atheism. Yes I am an atheist and I am not afraid to admit it.
These are my opinions and they are based on serious studies in comparative religion. I know what I am talking about, whether it is dogma, jurisprudence or history. I am a philosophy major and I studied a lot about religion.
My lawyers know that this is a difficult case, however, and that society might not accept it, so they asked me not to speak in court.
Tell me about your experience in prison
The case was impartial from the start. We called the police to ask for help since a mob was surrounding our house and threatening me.
When the police showed up, two hours late, they stayed downstairs until the people started setting fire to the building. Mostly Christian residents live in the building so the whole thing might have escalated into sectarian clashes.
The police then decided to arrest me instead of protecting me. The person writing up the report at the police station was being dictated to.
The senior officer said I was to be put in solitary confinement while being held on remand but a junior officer threw me in a normal cell with six criminals.
[The junior officer] cursed me; he cursed my mother, and then took me to another cell and incited the prisoners against me, telling them that I insulted Islam and Christianity.
One of them cut my throat with a razor blade. [The officer] knew who it was but did nothing.
He took me to a third cell and told the prisoners not to allow me to sleep and to have me sit by the toilet all night.
How did you arrive to the decision to become an atheist?
My journey towards this decision was in the period between 2001 and 2005. I had decided that I would not simply inherit religion. Faith here is hereditary; if your parents are Christian, you’re Christian. You have it written on your birth certificate before you can even think. And it is the same for Muslims.
In 2001 I decided to read about other religions. My thinking at the time was that I was born a Christian but I had not actually decided that for myself nor had I considered other religions. I felt like there could be a chance that my religion is the wrong one and that God would punish me for it since I did not seek out all the options first.
I spoke to a lot of people, including religious leaders and clerics from several faiths, I read a lot of books, and eventually I realised that religion was merely a way to find God, but that there were so many different religions, and even inside each religion there were many sects, so why did each claim a monopoly on God? Why did they all claim they were going to heaven and everyone else was not?
The circle then started to get wider. When I first started this journey I felt that religion could be easily disputed but I still believed in the existence of a god, so I had a limit, which was the existence of a creator deity. After reading and researching the issue I started to break out of this limit and think that there might not even be a god at all. I eventually decided that it did not make sense to me and I became an atheist.
What drove you to go public with your atheism amidst a period of religious zeal in an already socially and religiously conservative society?
From my studies I have learned that Middle Eastern communities have a trinity of taboos that are not to be spoken about: sex, politics and religion. When I started university in 2001 I had already been talking about politics. I remember at the time we still had presidential referendums, not elections, and I was outspoken on the issue.
I was involved in activism and wanted to join Kefaya and started taking to the streets at the time of the 6 April [strike actions] in 2008. Do you think someone who would take to the streets before the revolution and who chanted against Mubarak would be afraid to reveal their beliefs?
Did you face any difficulties over the decision to go public with it?
The Islamists in university subjected me to three assassination attempts.
Their leader and I had a political discussion once on the train and we became friends, I did not know who he was but my friends told me later.
After that I started to gain a reputation for my views that are critical of religion, mostly because of what I said in comparative religion classes. The Islamist youth leader decided that I was too dangerous.
He started sending members of his group after me, they constantly tried to start fights with me so that they could beat me up but I would not rise to their taunts and my friends were also looking out for me.
What about the Church and the Coptic community at large? You come from a Coptic background, how did your family and those around you react?
My parents knew since I was young that they could not control me and that I do what’s on my mind regardless of what others think. If I am not convinced by something I don’t do it.
Furthermore, they were democratic in that we would discuss things and agree to disagree without any problems arising.
So there was nothing they could do really. Their son is not convinced by their religion and that’s that.
In what way, if any, should religion manifest itself in politics?
Religion is divided into dogma and jurisprudence; it should have nothing to do with politics. Religion is unrelated to who I should elect and no one should be saying vote for this candidate so that you go to heaven. A secular state is not blasphemy.
Religious jurisprudence is a legal concept though; does it not have political connotations?
It is the law within the religion; people should not have to follow it. I am against marriage through the church, for example. I believe we should have civil marriages. The people not the clergy should enact laws.
I believe that we need to break the trinity of taboos I spoke about earlier. Many of the people are not intellectuals even if they are educated; they do not read a lot. We have just come out of an oppressive age and regime; an authoritarian regime does not pay attention to education and in fact tries to ruin it. If the people are ignorant they are easier to oppress.
How, realistically, can Egypt become a secular state, especially in light of the Islamist domination on the political sphere?
We have a movement here in Egypt called “secularists” for example and they take to the streets and raise awareness about the issue. I believe in confrontation. I used to debate Muslim Brotherhood members on secularism before the presidential elections.
However, the way to achieve state secularism is through raising awareness. It is the same way we were able to revolt. We raised awareness amongst the people that we are not just silly youth and that our demands were for their benefit. Eventually they joined us or at least stopped opposing us.
Everyone in Egypt is talking politics right now. We should start political campaigns explaining what the word “secularism” actually means. We need to explain separation of religion and state and how the state is an institution and cannot adopt a specific religion. We need to explain things like dictatorship of the majority and how democracy also means protecting the rights of minorities.
What do you think about the term “civil” as in civil state?
All the politicians are only looking out for their interests so naturally they will use a misleading euphemism like “civil state” since they cannot openly call for secularism or face the Islamists. And it is their fear that brought us to the mess we are in right now. I do not believe in a civil state, a civil state is a state ruled by civilians. A non-religious state is called a secular state and that is what we should call it.
What do you think of secular political forces?
We do not have secular political forces in Egypt, just some well-meaning individuals and small movements
What about the “civil” forces or the non-Islamist ones if you will?
You mean the political elites. The political elites in Egypt are not patriotic; they only go after their own interests. We are the ones on the streets, we get arrested and beaten, we sleep on the streets and all they do is make television appearances.
And in the end they still give in to the Muslim Brotherhood’s will. To be honest not all of them are like that but most of them. The respectable ones are the ones who rarely make television appearances and actually work.
You were part of the National Association for Change and you worked with Mohamed ElBaradei, does he fit the mould you describe?
I met ElBaradei several times. Since even before the revolution I have had several problems with some of his decisions. He does not communicate well with the youth around him and the people general. I used to ask him to make more videos before the revolution
During his presidential campaign he let it splinter into several groups without interfering. He is difficult to get a hold of even for us, his supporters. Even when we met him he always said he was busy, writing books or giving lectures. When we reached a million signatures for his change manifesto he asked us for five.
He is simply not around. We are his people and supporters, the people trying to get him elected president, yet he is never there to talk to us.
What do you think of the upcoming parliamentary elections? Will you participate?
I have been against participation ever since the 19 March 2011 constitutional amendment referendum. We should have demanded and pushed for a new constitution right then.
I also do not feel like boycott campaigns are a positive step. Participation and boycotting are both reactions. We need to be initiators and have the government and society react, not the other way round.
We let them hold whatever elections and referendums they want; it should not concern us. For example we needed to have a parallel parliament. I also suggested the idea of a transitional presidential council to Ayman Nour and the ElBaradei campaign before [former President Hosni] Mubarak had even stepped down.
We would have then had our own executive and legislator and Mubarak could do whatever he wanted like appoint [former Vice President] Omar Suleiman and it would not have mattered.
If you let [the state] take control of the process then they will do what they want. They can remove the people we do not want and appoint worse ones. What we need to do is create and offer our own alternatives and stick to them.
Will Muslim Brotherhood rule lead to a religious state in Egypt or will it backfire and lead to the people rejecting religious rule and forming a secular state?
I think this has already started. As soon as the Brotherhood appeared openly on the political scene they needed allies such as the Salafis, Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiya, and jihadist groups. They all allied because they speak in the name of religion.
These allies started making a lot of mistakes due to their political inexperience. The people started to reject their domination and move towards secularism. The people are now much more critical of religious leaders and feel that they no longer have a monopoly on religion.
This will lead to a secular state without the people even calling it that.
What about figures and groups that claim to be “moderate Islamists” such as Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh and Al-Wasat Party?
They are hypocrites. It’s like saying choose between someone who will curse and beat you or someone who will just curse you. They are one and the same as all other Islamists but they are just the “light” version.
What do you think of the newly adopted constitution?
This is not a constitution. I have a problem for example with Article 44 that says prophets and other religious figures cannot be insulted. Who defines insult? Christians do not believe Muhammad is a prophet, is that an insult? If a Christian says that, should they be put on trial? Muslims do not believe Jesus is God, is that an insult?
How can this constitution be brought down?
Forget the constitution, we need to bring down the regime first. Then we talk about a constitution.
Should President Mohamed Morsy be removed from office? Some say regardless of his faults he has to stay for the sake of stability and because he is democratically elected.
This is fear mongering. People were killed because of him and he did not lift a finger on their behalf. A man who lets his country fall just so that he can keep his post is not a president and does not deserve to be one.
Mubarak was better, since he left in 18 days. He was not like the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood who both proclaimed “me or death” as opposed to Mubarak who just said “me or chaos.” Obviously I do not support [Mubarak] though and have been opposing him since before the revolution, but he was better in that regard.
If Morsy has to leave, should he leave through popular protests or via constitutional provisions and an elected parliament?
I hope and prefer it to be through an elected parliament but the ignorance that opposition, religious and state media outlets are spreading will make that impossible. Also, how can we be sure this parliament will be representative and that elections will be free? We have seen so many violations in the first constitutional referendum, parliamentary elections, presidential election and the latest referendum.
Mubarak and SCAF had the state and security apparatus on their side. Morsy has that in addition to supporters who genuinely believe in him. How can you force him to step down? What will you do about his supporters?
The Muslim Brotherhood has around three to five million supporters. But SCAF and Mubarak also had their supporters, we are in the same situation and nothing has changed. It is a bit more difficult now. We used to face oppressive regimes that violated human rights and arrested activists; this religious regime is resorting to physically beating the opposition such as what happened to [Socialist Popular Alliance Party leader] Abu El-Ezz El-Hariri, [lawyer] Hamdi El-Fakharani, [journalist] Youssef Al-Husseini, and [director] Khaled Youssef. They have even resorted to assassinations like those of [journalist] Al-Husseiny Abu Deif and [6 April member] Jika [Gaber Salah].