ASSIUT, Egypt (AP) — An Egyptian prosecutor who cited the Quran as he ordered police to flog a man with 80 lashes for public drunkenness has been suspended and put under investigation, the prosecutor-general's office said.
Spokesman Mahmoud el-Hefnawi said late Sunday that the country's top prosecutor had ordered Hussein Anani's decision cancelled and a judicial inquiry launched.
The order by Anani comes amid growing fears by some in Egypt that Islamists, emboldened by election wins, are seeking to slowly enshrine a religious system based on conservative interpretations of Islamic law.
President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group has emerged as the most powerful political force in Egypt since the uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak two years ago.
As is the case in most countries, public intoxication has long been a criminal offense in Egypt. Penalties range from small fines to around three months in prison.
Egypt's penal code does not mention flogging, however. Years ago police had the right to lash disobedient prisoners, but even that has been banned.
Additionally, the sale and consumption of alcohol in Egypt is legal, and local beer is a common feature of street weddings in popular quarters.
The man who escaped the lashing, Mohammed Eid Hassan from the province of Minya, said he was arrested for public intoxication after attending a friend's wedding where beer was served.
"In such events I cannot refuse drinks because it is considered rude, even though such practices are taboo," he told The Associated Press on Monday.
He said he was questioned by prosecutors near his hometown of Matai, a city some 110 miles (180 kilometers) south of Cairo, for three hours. Hassan said the lashing was ordered after a heated argument with them.
"I told his highness the prosecutor to go ahead and carry out the lashing," he said defiantly. "I am not guilty if something like this to happens to me."
In a copy of the now-overturned decision obtained by The Associated Press, Anani wrote that he had ordered a police officer to carry out "Islamic punishment" against Hassan for consumption of alcohol. He then cited two verses of the Quran to try to back up the punishment with Shariah, or Islamic law.
One of the verses warns Muslims against alcohol, gambling and idolatry. It states that alcohol is the workings of the devil.
None of the verses prescribe lashing as a punishment, however.
Anani also cited another three verses of the Quran, which state that those who do not carry out God's rule are infidels, unjust and transgressors.
The flogging order was hailed as a triumph on jihadist forums Monday, with one person calling Anani's decision "grand" and another saying that his actions "embarrassed the oppressors who do not want to apply Shariah."
Police had refused to carry out the order and instead reported it to their superiors in the Interior Ministry, who then contacted the prosecutor general's office.
Rights lawyer Anas Sayid Saleh says that only judges, not prosecutors, have the right to order punishments.
"Proof of this is that police refused to carry out the order," Saleh said.
A high-level security official in Matai said he suspects ultraconservative Islamists may have precipitated the punishment in order to gage government and public reaction. He said that a state prosecutor like Anani knows the law well. He spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to speak to the media while the investigation is under way.
Associated Press reporters Aya Batrawy and Maamoun Youssef contributed from Cairo.