A prominent Egyptian atheist YouTuber, who has been in hiding from “insult to religion” charges since 2015, has apparently disappeared after posting on social media that he was being investigated at the airport.
Update, 8 May
A tweet from Sherif’s account on Sunday indicates that he is now free. This has been confirmed.
4 days in hell. I’m free. Okay. In Egypt. Details will follow in the right time but not soon. Thank you all.. really 🙂
— Sherif Gaber (@Mr_SherifGaber) 7 May 2018
Sherif Gaber’s YouTube channel has run since June 2015 with content mostly in Arabic and has over 147,000 subscribers. Videos are also collected on his website sherifgaber.org. He talks about women’s rights, sexual minorities, atheism, and the values of science and reason.
Gaber has faced arrest multiple times since he was first arrested in 2013 (see below) and has been in hiding since a conviction for “insulting religion” was upheld in 2015.
On 31 March this year he tweeted that a new case had been raised against him in connection with his ongoing atheist advocacy.
As expected. today some muslim lawyers reported me to the attorney general because of my videos. i’ll probably get arrested in the next few days, but i don’t want you to get mad. i’ll keep making videos when i get out.. i’ll write the scripts in prison.https://t.co/QK9vaa7sNk
— Sherif Gaber (@Mr_SherifGaber) March 31, 2018
Responses from followers urged him to leave the country. Whether or not to escape the country that persecutes him is an issue that Gaber has grappled with a number of times. In a recent blog post about the latest case against him, which he described as a ‘blasphemy’ claim by the Egyptian religious conservative Al-Nour party, Gaber expressed the pros and cons of any decision to leave the country: “I’m lost between two very hard choices.. Either to leave this war field and live with the feeling of giving up. Or to stay and risk spending many years in prison not knowing when i’ll get out and whether i’ll be safe inside this whole time or not. … After a lot of overthinking for the past 10 days and even-though i’m leaning on leaving but i still can’t decide. Staying here is extremely dangerous for me and i don’t want to live my life in fear anymore. I’ve spent many years of my life fearing the knocking on the door, the walking sound on the stairs wondering if it’s the police this time or maybe some jihadist who knew where i live. I’m tired of having nightmares about my time in jail. It’s a very exhausting and painful experience and it can destroy anyone physiologically. This’s basically not a life.”
This Wednesday, apparently having made up his mind to leave, Gaber posted via his Patreon account:
“I’m supposed to be travelling to Malaysia on 12:05 Cairo time. An hour from now. The police took me and made me wait in this room for 2 hours and I’m still waiting. They took my belongings and my passport and I don’t know what’s going on. If I didn’t update u an hour from now know that I was arrested. I will delete this since they will search my mobile. I hope u read it through Email. Don’t share this message unless 2 hours. I will update u if they didn’t arrest me.”
Andrew Copson, president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), said:
“We are extremely concerned that Sherif Gaber, who usually posts regularly online, has not been heard from since this warning post on Wednesday. We are attempting to get confirmation of any arrest or charges that he faces.
“The crimes for which Sherif Gaber has been repeatedly harassed by the authorities, imprisoned, and then driven into hiding, are simply crimes of free expression. The evidence that police cited against him previously includes conversations in which he ‘denied divine miracles’ and his general attitude of ‘publicly acknowledging atheism’. The right to question religion and to hold non-religious views is fundamental. As Sherif himself recently tweeted: ‘some people… are unfortunate to taste how it really feels like to live in the dark ages while others in other countries study it as history.’
“The rights of non-religious people to freedom of belief and freedom of expression are just as real and valid as the rights of the religious to their own freedom of belief and expression. Egypt has been systematically violating those rights and we call on the Egyptian state to respect human rights, desist from its campaign against atheists, and abolish the ‘blasphemy’ laws which permit this hostile and unnecessary prosecutions, violating the defendants’ right to freedom of expression.”
Sherif Gaber was first arrested in 2013 in a dramatic raid, with armoured cars surrounding his house in the middle of the night. Gaber had challenged a science lecturer who said that homosexuals should “be crucified in the middle of the streets”, saying that he should stick to science. The incident escalated, with portions of Gaber’s social media accounts being distributed at the university. Senior university faculty became involved in reviewing his social media posts and the police were called.
In a police report from 2013 seen by the IHEU, Gaber’s arrest was explained as being based on assertions “by our confidential reliable sources” and: “The investigations and information proved that the aforementioned defendant [Sherif Gaber] had gone through some conversations and discussions with some of the professors at the Suez Canal University and with some of his fellow colleagues, with regards to the characteristics of the Divine Self and he denied the miracles and the Monotheistic religions and affirmed the rights of homosexuals and gays to have sexual intercourse. [/] The investigations and information also added that he scorned the teachings of the true Islamic Religion. He also denied the divine miracles and the verses of the Holy Quran, in an attempt to promote these ideas at the campus, the ideas, which he was convinced of through the social media, on the internet, claiming that he possessed the material and logical evidences that proved that his ideas and beliefs are correct.”
The report claims that testimony from faculty and students established that Gaber had said and done things “which are considered as contempt of religion, insulting the Divine Self, the Holy Quran, and Prophet Muhammed God’s prayers and peace be upon him. And his also calling for spreading debauchery and immorality, homosexuality and acknowledging atheism publicly and calling up the students to perform such acts”.
In February 2015 Gaber was sentenced to one year prison with hard labour for “professed atheism” and “insulting” Islam, as well as “defending homosexuality”. But the case was ongoing, and after the 2015 verdict he fled into hiding. He resurfaced in summer 2015 making pro-science videos from undisclosed locations. He has continued to produce occasional content, often of a satirical nature, challenging pious attitudes to religion and pointing out fallacies within religious debates.
Gaber’s case is featured in the chapter on Egypt in the IHEU Freedom of Thought Report, which also explains that since 2014 in particular there has been a widespread anti-atheist sentiment, initiated by government and religious leaders claiming that young people needed to be “re-educated” away from atheism as it was becoming more prevalent. The campaign has evolved into a general, ongoing scaremongering and moral panic about atheism. The Freedom of Thought Report notes deep concern at “these organised, authoritarian programmes against the organic growth of non-religious thinking. While pretending to be a “scholarly” response to a social trend or a lawful process in favour of public order or national cultural identity, the authorities are in fact maligning atheists as dangerous and a threat to the state and society, in such a way that demonizes individual atheists and presents a clear threat to atheists’ freedom of thought and expression.”