CAIRO—Egypt’s cultural scene has witnessed a series of government actions in recent years that have raised concerns about the future of the publishing industry and freedom of expression in the country. Those actions include decisions to close some cultural institutions and bookstores, the confiscation of books and assets, and the arrests of some writers and publishers.
“Egypt’s culture-production environment has become politically costly, and the threat of imprisonment and possible closure has made the political dimension a key element in publishers’ decisions about whether to contract any writer,” said Fady Awad, a former publishing director at Dar el-Shorouk, one of Egypt’s largest publishing houses.
In February, a court upheld a five-year prison term previously imposed on Khaled Lutfi, the founder of Tanmia Publishing House. Lutfi was accused of disclosing military secrets for distributing the Arabic version of a politically sensitive book about Ashraf Marwan, who is said to have spied for Israel in the years leading up to the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. (Marwan was a son-in-law of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Egypt has long denied that he was a spy.) The book, by Israeli author Uri Bar-Joseph, was published in English as The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel.
Lutfi founded his bookstore six years ago in the center of the Egyptian capital and it became well-known, in part, for providing low-priced Egyptian editions of books published elsewhere in the Arab world.
Lutfi’s case is not the only one. Late in September, the security services raided and closed Al-Balad Bookstore on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo, near Tahrir Square. The pretext for closing the bookstore was the claim that it had no license, but some critics suspect the decision was politically motivated. The store’s owner, Farid Zahran, is president of the opposition Egyptian Social Democratic Party.
In earlier actions, the government seized the assets of the Alef bookstore chain in August 2017. The chain’s owner is alleged to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. A government committee charged with confiscating the assets of the banned Islamist group appointed a state-run investment company to monitor the chain’s administrative and financial affairs.
And in December 2016, the security forces closed several branches of Al-Karama community library in Cairo. The libraries were founded by the human rights activist Gamal Eid but had no affiliation with any political party, he told a local news outlet at the time.
Eid is head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
Dina Kabil, director of Al-Maraya Publishing House, said the government actions are taking a financial and psychological toll on the industry and the people who work in it.
“There are continuous constraints on us, and they have reached an unreasonable level, with persistent arguments aimed at controlling the content of the published books,” Kabil said.
Six months ago, security forces stormed Al-Maraya publishing house to arrest Ayman Abdul Moati, an editor and director of distribution there. Moati’s name was listed in a government case charging numerous people with “joining a terrorist group, promoting an act of terrorism and spreading fake news through the use of social media.”
Moati was not involved in any political activity, Kabil said, adding that his arrest had a heavy impact on the house. “Its effects are still hovering over our work.”
In addition to concerns about arrests and closings, there are numerous restrictions on publishers, according to Kabil. Publishers need to continually check with the Office of Censorship of Artistic Works on paperwork related to new books or published ones that the office chooses to review.
The Egyptian National Library and Archives has also imposed new regulations on the registration of new books. Authors have to sign statements confirming that they take responsibility for everything contained in their books and will bear “the consequences of everything mentioned there.” Translated or imported books are also subject to monitoring under overlapping, loose and unclear laws, Kabil said.
One of the books that the censorship office chose for review was titled “The Anatomy of Defeat: The 1967 War after 50 Years.”
Kabil believes it was the word the “defeat” in the title that motivated the office’s decision to review the book, “in preparation to punish the house for publishing the book.”
Such actions cause financial losses for the publishing industry, she said, in addition to their impact on freedom of thought and creativity.
Fady Awad, the former publishing director at Dar el-Shorouk, agrees that the heightened government scrutiny is adding to the financial losses of publishers, especially since political books and politically-based novels are among their best-sellers.
“The decline in publishing political books represents a huge economic loss to the Egyptian publishing houses,” said Awad, who is now working on his Ph.D. in languages from a French university. “It was normal for these houses to publish the diaries of politicians who played influential roles in the January 25th revolution,” he said, referring to the 2011 uprising. “But this will not be allowed now.
“This loss affects the quality of the books currently available in the market,” Awad said. Such books are often classified as human development books,” he said, and reflect the image of “a successful, coherent, non-reactionary person” that the state seeks to promote.
Saeed Abdo, president of the Egyptian Publishers Union, rejects the notion that the recent events in the Egyptian cultural scene amount to a decline in freedom of thought and creativity.
“The publishers are not above the law,” he said. “Khaled Lutfi is imprisoned in accordance with the law and he has full legal right to defend himself and prove his innocence regarding the charges brought against him.”
Abdo believes that the problems faced by Egyptian publishing houses come from the publishers’ ignorance of the code of ethics approved by the union concerning professional standards.
“Freedom of creativity should not clash with the law, and obtaining the necessary license to publish a book is a commitment to the national security,” he said.
He cited a rise in the number of publishing houses from 605 to 1,250 last year, which he said confirms that “the freedom of creativity for publishers and writers in Egypt is always protected, and nobody can touch them from near or far.”
Some Egyptian writers whose works express political views are trying to avoid the restrictive policies by taking their works to Arab publishing houses outside Egypt. Alaa Al-Aswany, one of Egypt’s most-prominent authors, recently signed a contract with Dar Al-Adab in Beirut to publish his new novel. All his previous novels were published in Egyptian.
“We are in the face of a mass departure of Egyptian writers for Arabic publishing houses to print their books, especially those who have a critical vision in their literary work,” Awad said. “This is a big loss.”
Another Egyptian novelist, Mansoura Ez-Eldin, believes more in the ability of writers to find their own ways to avoid censorship. Policies of censorship of publishing houses and the book market are not new in the Arab world and are not confined to Egypt alone, she observed.
In the face of such restrictions, she said, “writers and innovators have always resorted to individual solutions,” sometimes creating “a new kind of literature or writing that tends to use metaphors and indirect criticism, and probabilities and hints as an indirect means of escaping the censorship while maintaining quality.”
The biggest problem, Ez-Eldin said, remains in the “silence or self-censorship of creative people that actually threatens Arab creativity.”