Abdel Kareem Soliman, a 22-year-old Egyptian blogger sentenced last month to four years in prison for insulting Islam and the presidency, might have been idealistic - but he was not naive. His blogs showed that he was keenly aware he was likely to pay a heavy price for continuing to proclaim his blend of humanism, libertarianism and strident secularism in cyberspace. Soliman, who blogged under the name Kareem Amer, intensified his criticism of Egypt's powerful Al-Azhar religious establishment even after he was summoned to appear in October at a police station in Alexandria, his home city. Before his appearance, he posted a blog entry rejecting the legitimacy of laws that prevented criticism of religion and of the police for enforcing those laws. Critics of President Hosni Mubarak's regime say that by putting Soliman behind bars, Egypt is trying to silence other bloggers, who have become a thorn in the regime's side. 'Kareem is being used,' said Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born commentator on Arab issues based in New York. 'The government thought they would put him on trial because of the religious dimension and scare the other bloggers through what's happening to him.' Last year, bloggers exposed sexual assaults on women in central Cairo during a religious holiday by drawing media attention to the issue. In December, a police officer was detained and accused of sexually assaulting a prisoner after bloggers circulated a video that police themselves had made of the prisoner being sodomised. Other Egyptian bloggers have been arrested for insulting the presidency duirng the past year, but all have been released. Unlike Soliman, they did not take on Islam. 'Press the Islam button and people go nuts,' Ms Eltahawy said. 'Many people who I'm sure have never read his writings will say, 'He insulted religion, he's gone beyond any boundaries and I have no sympathy for him'.' Ms Eltahawy said Egypt had made some advances in freedom of expression compared with a decade ago, including the emergence of a bold independent newspaper, al-Masri al-Yawm. But she said Soliman's plight was 'a perfect example that freedom of expression is not in safe hands with the Mubarak regime, which can turn things on and off'. Egyptian officials have defended the imprisonment, arguing that although freedom of speech was protected by Egypt's constitution and legal framework, it was not an absolute right and was superseded by values sacred to Egyptian society such as the sanctity of religion. The case also has implications throughout the Arab world, where blogging has encouraged discussion by providing space for previously unexpressed criticism. Bahraini blogger Esra'a al-Shafei, a 20-year-old friend of Soliman and founder of the Free Kareem Coalition ( www.freekareem.org ), said it has enabled people to 'write what we want, whenever we want, and have it read by thousands, sometimes, millions of people'. 'As Arabs and Muslims,' she wrote in an online interview, 'it's very important to take part in this case to make Arab governments in general understand that we are not going to be silenced,' Ms al-Shafei described Soliman, whom she met at a conference last summer, as 'really shy and soft-spoken'. 'He is not talkative unless he is spoken to,' she said. But on his blog, Soliman was anything but hesitant. He rewrote the Islamic declaration of faith,, 'There is no god but God and Mohammed is the Messenger of God' to read 'There is no god but the human' and made it the title of a blog in which he argued that laws should exist only to protect human liberty. Ms al-Shafei said that as a Muslim, she found some of Soliman's writings 'ill-informed and unfair' and that other bloggers agreed with her that he should have been more respectful towards Islam. In a blog about the sacred fasting month of Ramadan posted in October, Soliman argued that many Egyptians fasted because of social pressure, not because they wanted to and he termed Ramadan the 'month of hypocrisy'. He described how he and a friend went to a fast-food outlet in Cairo shortly before the end of one fasting day, ordered meals and began eating them. Families waiting for the end of the fast looked at them 'as if we came from another planet'. This caused the meal to become 'an unbearable torture because of the staring of those around us', he wrote. But it was Soliman's rebellion against Al-Azhar University, his alma mater, that eventually led to his incarceration. Soliman wrote on his blog that it was because of pressure from his father that he enrolled in the religious jurisprudence and law college of the university's Alexandria campus. Soliman's first arrest came in October 2005 after he wrote a blog denouncing violent attacks on Christians by Muslims in Alexandria. He was released after 18 days, according to his own account. In March last year, the university called him in for a disciplinary hearing over his blogs. When he refused to recant, he was expelled. But the university did not stop there. Instead, it went on to file a complaint with the police that led to Soliman being arrested again and put on trial. The last post on his blog, written after he received the summons in October, was an indictment of the university as a breeding ground for violence and irrational thought. Soliman wrote that he expected to be killed or imprisoned for his outspokenness. 'I am not worried at all,' he wrote. '[Being summoned for questioning] increases my self-confidence and makes me more steadfast in my principles.' Ms al-Shafei said she was deeply disappointed by what she saw as the lack of an adequate response to Soliman's imprisonment and by Arabs and Muslims who refused to sign the coalition's online petition because they did not agree with Soliman's opinions. 'If we aren't able to express ourselves, that's a huge issue for Arab youth,' she said. 'How are we expected to grow as a civilisation if we aren't allowed to question and criticise without risking our lives for it?'