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The situation for Egyptian writers is growing increasingly difficult, with many in exile or even facing imprisonment at home. Voicing critical or alternative views on politics, morality or religion has become a red line and many writers are now afraid to publish at all.
The Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany was sued in March 2019 in a military court for insulting the president, army and judiciary and inciting against the regime. The direct cause of the lawsuit appeared to be one of Aswany’s weekly op-eds for the German outlet Deutsche Welle, in which he firmly criticised the Egyptian army’s involvement in politics.
Aswany’s latest novel–‘The Republic, As If – also seemed to have played a role. TV presenter Nashaat Al-Dihy described the novel in his show as “impolite” and against the “morality of the people” and said it led to the accusations against the author. The book has been banned in Egypt and was eventually printed by a Lebanese publisher. “My Egyptian publisher was very scared,” Aswany told Fanack.
“I was attacked in the media for this novel,” he added. “It takes place during the revolution [and talks] about people being killed by the authorities and virginity tests.” Members of Parliament also spoke out against the novel, saying it follows a “western agenda.”
Aswany now resides in the United States, as he says work has been made impossible for him in Egypt. Aside his novel, a monthly seminar he used to give was banned in 2015. “I don’t think I will travel back to Egypt anytime soon,” he said. “A military court’s ruling can be amended by the president and ministry of defence, so there is no true judicial process to be won.”
Aswany is not an exception when it comes to writers under threat in Egypt. Ahmed Naji also lives in self-imposed exile in the United States. In 2016, he was sentenced to two years in prison for violating public modesty after an erotic passage in one of his novels was published in a cultural magazine.
“Many writers are afraid to publish [in Egypt]. I know writers now trying instead to publish in Lebanon and even the Gulf,” Naji told Fanack.
The government crackdown on books is wider than just a few specific writers. The Al-Karama library chain was raided in 2016 and subsequently closed down. Dar Merit publishing house was raided in 2015 and again in late 2017. El Balad bookstore was also forced to close in 2017.
Several Alef bookstore branches were raided over alleged ties of the owner to the Muslim Brotherhood. “Alef is now under control of [state-owned newspaper] Al-Akhbar Al-Youm. It used to have 20 branches and now it only has five or six. Every month one closes,” Naji said.
Non-fiction writers have to be careful as well. In October 2018, economist Abdel-Khalek Farouk, author of the book “Is Egypt really a poor country,” and his publisher were detained over publishing false news. The book argues that poverty in Egypt is due to bad government policies and corruption. Farouk and his publisher were released a few days later; he was not available for comment on whether the case is still open and if his book has been officially banned.
Aside from politics and morality, touching upon religion can be another minefield for writers. Karam Saber received a five-year prison sentence in 2013 on charges of contempt of religion and defamation over his novel “Where is God”, in which he narrates the lives of poor farmers in Upper Egypt.
Regardless of his own prison sentence, Naji believes that this systematic crackdown on the industry started only in 2018. “Before that, it was case by case,” he said.
According to Naji, things took a turn for the worse with the book signing of poet Galal El-Beheiry at the Cairo book fair in 2018 for a collection of his poems with a title deemed sarcastic of the army. The collection was titled, “The finest women [niswan] on earth,” in an apparent reference to a description of the Egyptian army found in one of the Hadiths, or sayings, attributed to the Prophet Muhammad as “the finest soldiers on earth.” El-Beheiry was sentenced to three years in prison by a military court in July 2018.
“Since then, many more books have been banned,” Naji said. “Before, you could easily ask for an ISBN number. Now you need a testimony that the book doesn’t include anything against state institutions, as well as all the details of the writer. After you get the ISBN number, they need copies of the book to be sent to the general intelligence and national security,” Naji explained.
Moreover, the Cairo book fair edition of 2019 was held in the far-away suburb of Tagammo al-Khamis “to be able to control it,” Naji thinks. Publishers were asked to send in advance the titles they wanted to put on display, he added.
“Sisi is not afraid of the economic [conditions] or of terrorism, but of books,” Naji said. “[Former president] Mubarak allowed another narrative [opposed to the dominant state narrative] and they [the current government] don’t want [the revolution] to happen again. So now they want to control all media, talks, TV, newspapers and books. They want to control who has influence over the public and who does not. And books are powerful; they can change public opinion.”
For Naji, the Egyptian literary tradition that has brought forth legendary writers–such as Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz and Bahaa Taher, among many others–has now largely faded.
But not everyone agrees. There are still many young aspiring writers working on their debuts inside Egypt. “Even under the Nazis, Stalin and Assad novelists have managed to do very creative work. So, you can do it under Sisi as well,” said a budding writer on the condition of anonymity.
He does, however, acknowledge the challenges. “All new writers have one thing in common: they try to avoid talking about anything explicitly political. And I will do the same.” He is also cautious about erotic content. “I’m writing sex scenes freely [in the first draft], but perhaps after editing I’ll rethink certain scenes.”
Some writers do currently enjoy major success in Egypt, such as Youssef Zidane and Ahmed Mourad, but “they are very much pro-Sisi,” the young writer said. Both are known for publicly supporting the regime and President Sisi and Zidane even made a case on television for not writing about politics. “[The state] wants to control what becomes a bestseller and what doesn’t,” Naji said.
The young writer nevertheless refuses to lose hope. “I can write, no matter what the political situation. Books have been written from prison,” he said. “As writers we are flexible, especially when it comes to fiction.”