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In Egypt it is a crime to read books

September 3, 2021 at 10:38 am

Men look through books on sale at Cairo’s historic al-Azbakeya book market at downtown in Cairo on January 16, 2019 [MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images]

Because it has no real popular support, for any dictatorship to survive censorship is central to their modus operandi. True to form, since the military take-over of power in 2013, Egypt has waged a war on the popular musalsalet and blocked some 500 news websites.

Last year Egypt banned Ya Balah Zaghloul (Oh, Zaghloul Dates) from a Sayed Darwish play at the Balloon Theatre in Cairo, because President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi himself has been given the nickname balha (red dates). In Egypt, balha is used to describe someone who claims to be wise but in fact is not.

Earlier this year a Ramadan series, Al-Ikhtar (the choice), produced by the government-run Synergy, re-enacted the August 2013 Rabaa massacre and presented the Muslim Brotherhood as the most serious threat to the state and its citizens.

Yet whilst it is the state’s control over TV and the media which is most widely reported on, for years these restrictions have extended to what the population reads. It makes sense – the narrative is tightly controlled, and the regime has no interest in either allowing its citizens to escape to another world, or to think critically for themselves.

In the latest such step, Egypt’s Ministry of Endowments announced that it will examine publications held in mosque libraries and remove any bearing extremist ideology. It will “purify” mosque libraries from work related to the Muslim Brotherhood, it has promised, in a bid to “prevent extremism”.

READ: Egypt drops charges against rights activists, YouTuber

As a further preventative measure imams will pledge to seek permission on any titles entering their libraries. Those who “neglect orders” will be punished.

As the revolution ushered in what was believed at the time to be a new era of freedoms, post Arab Spring, authors such as George Orwell and Milan Kundera found their way back on the bookshelves and there was demand for Cart Ahmar lil Rayis (A Red Card for the President) by the founder of Kefaya – the Egyptian Movement for Change.

But over the past eight years these newfound freedoms have been chipped away at again and stalls at the Cairo International Book Fair report that police inspect the work on display. With such hefty, public punishments issued for dissenting voices in the country, it’s not always clear where the line falls between government censorship and those who self-censor out of fear.

The attack is from all angles. Last year, Egypt’s state-run National Centre for Translation released a statement to say that any translators pitching work on subjects that oppose social norms, morals, customs or monotheistic religions, would be rejected and in 2016 Egyptian security forces raided a library in the Dar El-Salam neighbourhood and three of its branches, closed them down and confiscated their books, accusing them of being seditious spaces.

The Dar El-Salam library was founded by the human rights lawyer Gamal Eid and frequented by children eager to finish their homework. In 2019 Eid, a leading rights activist, was beaten up by security forces who threw red and yellow paint over him in a further attempt to deter him from his work.

Cairo’s Dar Merit Publishing House has been raided by the interior ministry, the bookshop El Balad has been closed down, and the bookstore chain, Alef, has closed all 37 of its branches after being accused of having links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

READ: Egypt bans books on Muslim Brotherhood entering mosques

A state-run committee founded to seize Brotherhood assets took control of Alef’s assets in August 2017 and later arrested its co-founder, Omar El-Sheneti, on similar charges even though the stores stocked anti-Muslim Brotherhood literature.

Gamal Abdel Hakim has been sentenced to five years in jail under a counterterror law for being in possession of Karl Marx’s Value, Price and Profit, which security forces found in his house when he was arrested in 2017.

That same year, university professor Dr. Mona Prince was accused of “glorifying Satan” and “spreading destructive ideas” after she taught John Milton’s Paradise Lost to her students at Suez University and was later suspended. Officials said she is challenging the public order by disguising it as the textual analysis of literature.

Given Egypt’s history of censorship, and how it punishes dissent, the words of literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr seem apt: “Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.