Censorship of Literary Work Remains Unchallenged In Egypt
Book censorship is spreading in Egypt now that numerous self-appointed authorities have received the absolute right to ban, sue or destroy a book for so-called religious and security reasons.
Freedom of expression is a right granted by the Egyptian constitution and acknowledges "freedom of literary, artistic and cultural invention". However, Islamic institutions like the Azhar and state-run bodies such as the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Education have the right to review books and withdraw them from the market.
Last week, a court banned foreign schools from teaching a book entitled History of the World, which according to the Cairo-based Egyptian Gazette, "contained information considered blasphemous and humiliating to Islam." Another book was recently confiscated by the arts division in the Interior Ministry for allegedly criticizing modern Islamic scholars and questioning their eligibility.
On the one hand, books focusing on religious and political matters are confiscated for broaching tabued subjects. On the other hand, religious books that arguably "entice hatred" are sometimes left on book shelves.
"What these government and religious bodies exercise regarding literary work is a form of thuggery," said Mohammed Hashem, owner of a local publishing house. Hashem was interrogated about a book he published that was later deemed "irreligious and profane."
In the event of censorship, people calling for a ban have only to petition the office of the prosecution, and a case is almost immediately upheld against both the author and the publisher if the book is deemed "insulting to Islam" or to the ruling regime.
"In my case, I was asked questions like: 'Why did you publish this book? Did you know it contained blasphemy?' and so forth," said Hashem, adding, "Publishers face numerous pressures."
Hashem's book was quickly removed by a committee following the investigation. In other cases, representatives of the Azhar arrive and remove the controversial book "although they do not have legal rights to do so," Hasham notes.
The Azhar, a top authority on Islam, could not be reached for comment. But although some liberals accuse religious organizations of "infringing on writers' freedom of expression," others say that the problem is more entrenched in the Egyptian system and is "beyond religious institutions."
Author Sonallah Ibrahim said, "Censorship in Egypt is closely connected to the political status that does not encourage freedoms" and to a culture of silence.
"The whole issue is almost comical," said Ibrahim, whose first book sparked a fury and was banned for criticizing the Egyptian cabinet. Despite outcries, sometimes writers in government-controlled media even rush to justify the practice for fear of "disturbing public order".
Nawal Saadawi, a well-known author and outspoken critic of the government, had five books banned by her own publishers less than two weeks ago.
Saadawi's autobiography and another controversial play called "God Resigns in the Summit Meeting" were among the books removed from display. Saadawi believes that the security police are behind the ban.
Every single copy of "God Resigns in the Summit Meeting" was shredded by local publisher Madbouli, who did not even give 70-year- old Saadawi a copy of her own book, and kept the manuscript.
When asked, Hajj Mohamed Madbouli, owner and manager of the publishing house, said the decision was not political saying that he removed the book as soon as he learnt the title. "She's insulting God.
I can publish anything even if it's against governments or kings, but never against God," Madbouli said, adding that members of the security police only witnessed the destruction of the book but did not initially request it.
There are other "thriving" forms of censorship in Egypt. For instance, some "pious" Muslim lawyers have adopted censorship cases; systematically filing court cases against "notorious" books, movies, and TV shows.
Hashem, the local publisher, said that in some cases "censorship has become a flourishing business.
An unknown lawyer files a case against a book, deeming it immodest or sacrilegious and attracts plenty of media attention in the process. In other instances, the publishers take advantage of the situation by removing a book from a shelf, claiming that it has been confiscated. It can then be sold illegally at a higher price.
"People rush to search for books that are banned," explained Hashem. But pressure in the form of death threats and exclusion from the media, which eventually lead to self-censorship, are the worst.
Saadawi is always under crossfire from conservatives and security officials and has not only faced defamation and court cases but also death threats from Islamic radicals. Local media, who are sometimes equally conservative in view of "sensitive issues" have often ignored her plight and have not answered her pleas.
Saadawi is banned from public television because of her writings. "There are other ways of silencing a writer, make them withdraw their work or express regret for publishing it ... such as prison," said Saadawi, who was briefly incarcerated in the early 1980s.