A lawsuit has been filed at the South Cairo Family Affairs Court by a fundamentalist lawyer representing Gamaat-al- Hissbah, a voluntary group that brings private prosecutions for alleged anti-Islamic activities. It aims to form a citizens' arrest group along the lines of Saudi Arabia's religious police.
Basing his petition on Gamaat-al-Hissbah's own interpretation of the Koran, the lawyer, Semeidha Abdel-Sammad, asked the court to order the divorce of Nassr Abu-Zaid, 50, and his wife, Ibtihal Yunis-Abu- Zaid, both teachers at Cairo University, on the grounds that she, as a Muslim, cannot remain married to an apostate.
Law experts expected the court to reject the case, since there is no reference to apostasy in the statute books. But the court last week adjourned the hearing to 4 November to give Mr Abdel-Sammad leave to apply to al-Azhar, the institution that interprets the teachings of Islam, in Cairo, to rule on Dr Abu-Zaid's alleged apostasy.
'This disgusting action is unheard of in the history of our country,' said Mrs Abu-Zaid, one of a circle of female academics refusing to give in to fundamentalists' intimidation of women on the campus. 'How dare they interfere in my life?' The couple have been married for 18 months.
Dr Abu-Zaid's alleged apostasy became an issue in March, when his nomination to the professorship of Arabic literature came before the 25-member Cairo University Administrative Council.
One member, an Islamic ideologist, Abd el-Sabour Chahine, demanded the promotion be blocked. He presented a report highlighting 'clear signs of apostasy and atheism' in the candidate's published works, including his defence of Salman Rushdie's right to publish The Satanic Verses.
The Abu-Zaid case, which has turned into a battle between Islamic fundamentalists and members of the liberal establishment, could open up a Pandora's box in a country where theological ruling has - so far - had no place in the legal system.
Liberals accuse the Islamists of harbouring a vendetta against Dr Abu-Zaid because of his criticism of scholars who used Islamic dogma to encourage ill- educated Egyptians to invest their life savings in Islamic banks, many of which subsequently collapsed. Dr Chahine was an adviser to Arryan Islamic Bank, which was closed down in 1988 following a government investigation.
The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights accuses the fundamentalists of putting the lives of the Abu-Zaids in danger. It drew parallels with the trial of Islamic activists charged with the murder last year of the writer Farag Fouda, who, like Dr Abu- Zaid, was an outspoken critic of academics who supported Islamic banking.
Last week the defence called on the Islamic television preacher Sheikh Muhammed el- Ghazali to issue a fatwa from the witness- box, claiming that the killing of the apostate Fouda was not a crime but 'a minor offence against the government by taking law into their own hands'.
Dr Abu-Zaid, advised by moderate Muslims to reaffirm his faith publicly, to prove he is not an apostate, rejected the compromise on principle. 'How would I then face my students, who now applaud me every time I walk into a lecture hall?' he asked.