CAIRO — A Cairo court on Thursday ordered the chief editor of an Egyptian newspaper detained pending trial on charges of insulting the country's president and potentially harming the public interest.
The case against Islam Afifi of the privately-owned el-Dustour daily is one of several lawsuits brought mainly by Egypt's Islamists against journalists, accusing them of inflammatory coverage and inciting the public against the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest political group.
In a noisy court session, the head prosecutor from Cairo's Criminal Court ordered Afifi held in custody and scheduled his trial for mid-September. He read out a long list of defamation charges including "insulting the president via a publication" and "spreading rumors that could disturb public safety and harm public interest."
Supporters of the defendant shouted in protest as the decision was read to the packed courtroom. Rights groups quickly expressed indignation at the decision, and the national journalist association, the Press Syndicate, called for an emergency meeting.
"Insulting the president is a vague accusation that can be easily politicized," tweeted leading youth activist Wael Ghonim, a former Google executive who played a key role in Egypt's uprising last year.
"Tomorrow, when someone writes his opinion and calls Morsi a weak president ... he will be prosecuted for insulting the president," he added.
A human rights group called The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights expressed its "shock" and said there is no need to detain the journalist since he is already banned from travel outside the country.
Another prominent case is that of TV presenter Tawfiq Okasha who was charged with suggesting the murder of President Mohammed Morsi during a talk show aired on private el-Faraeen TV earlier this month.
The network was taken off the air and Okasha was banned from travel pending his trial in early September. Lawsuits have also been brought against chief editors of el-Fagr and Sawt el-Umma weeklies on similar accusations.
The Islamists, and especially the Muslim Brotherhood, have intensified their campaign against media they perceive as antagonistic, claiming they follow the former regime's agenda. The group feels empowered after Morsi in June became Egypt's first elected civilian president in modern history.
Afifi's el-Dustour regularly runs articles warning of alleged Brotherhood plots and conspiracies to turn Egypt into a fundamentalist Islamic state. It also has promoted an anti-Brotherhood demonstration for Friday, initially calling for the torching of Brotherhood offices but later toning down its call to peaceful rallies in Cairo.
The protest call has spurred public debate, especially after a Brotherhood cleric issued a religious edict, known as a fatwa, saying that killing anti-Islamist protesters was permissible.
Activists demand Morsi to take a strong stance against such statements. Egypt's Presidential Spokesman Yasser Ali on Wednesday said the president supports the right to hold protests and said "it is unhealthy" to spread fears about protesters' safety.
Leading pro-democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei condemned the imprisonment of the editor and the issuance of the fatwas, saying such developments betrayed the values of last year's revolt against Egypt's longtime strongman, former President Hosni Mubarak.
"Instigating to kill in the name of religion, and accusing revolutionaries of betrayal are not crimes, but insulting the president in the press leads to imprisonment," he said. "It's as if no revolution has taken place."
Concerns of a possible showdown in Cairo have escalated, as the Brotherhood has asked its young followers to come out on Friday to protect the group's offices from opposition protesters.
Security authorities meanwhile warned in a statement that they would "confront with all firmness ... riots or chaos that harms citizens' interests."
The Brotherhood dominates both houses of parliament, including the upper chamber known as the Shura Council. The council controls state-owned newspapers and last month ordered the dismissal of 50 chief editors of state papers and other outlets.
The appointment of new editors, who are either sympathizers of the Islamists or members of the Brotherhood, sparked a wave of protests by journalists both within and outside state media. The Press Syndicate accused the Brotherhood of trying to monopolize the media and turn it into its mouthpiece.
Pro-democracy activists have shown mixed reactions to the court cases. Many defend the right of freedom of expression and deem the Islamists' practices as repressive. Others side with the Islamists and accuse journalists facing trials of spreading propaganda in the service of former regime loyalists.