(Originally published in Cairo, 2001)
Freedom of expression in Egypt is a sensitive issue linked as it is to time-honored taboo subjects: sex, religion and politics. Suppression of freedom of expression by government authorities in Egypt covers literature and art. Most of the time it is unofficial, but whether expressed in writing or verbally, it is all-pervasive. From children’s songs as in the case of David and Goliath to serious writing as in the case of AUC professor Samia Mehrez’s book For Bread Alone, censorship affects society as a whole.
The current regime cannot be blamed entirely for the limited freedom of expression in Egypt. It became a reality during the Nasser era. From 1954 until 1970, the situation in Egypt was far worse than it is today: almost no one had the right of free access to information or freedom of expression – either the written word or spoken – a demonstration or silent resistance. Prisons were teeming with writers, journalists and artists; even religious figures with no interest in politics.
The issue at hand is not only the current level of freedom of expression but future trends and developments. The common excuse or justification for enforcing some kind of censorship is a fear that unregulated expression or complete freedom of speech could harm individuals or society at large. Offensive material is thus targeted because of a fear that it will corrupt personal morality or lead to deviant sexual acts.
Notwithstanding official (government) censorship, interest groups such as religious fundamentalists also try to pressurize the authorities and the media to curtail what they disapprove in an attempt to ‘further the cause’. In a recent incident, a supporter of Muslim Brotherhood member Dr Gamal Hishmat questioned Egyptian Minister of Culture, Farouk Hosni in Parliament about three novels that reportedly contained explicit sexual language and erotica. The minister banned the three works in question and also dismissed some senior state officials including Chairman, National Cultural Palaces, Ali Abu Shady, who heads the state- owned publication house that printed the books.
Regardless of the poor literary merits of the three novels, the minister’s protective action initiated a hurricane of criticism; his move was condemned by a number of writers, thinkers and so-called intellectuals who considered his decision a suppression of free expression. They were particularly surprised because the minister is known for his liberal attitude. Banning the books and firing Abu Shady and the others triggered angry reactions. The minister is now out of favor with the conservative fundamentalists who perceive him as being westernized and the liberals, who believe he is more dedicated to preserving his position of 14 years than he is to encouraging creativity in Egypt.
This is one topic where double standards are most prevalent. There is a huge difference between the image that is projected and the seething cauldron of suppressed behavior that lurks underneath. Consider for instance the degree of sexual harassment encountered in Egypt. Obscene and indecent acts and words are offensive all over the world, but for a majority of Egyptians and indeed almost all the Arab world, anything that has to do with the ‘technicalities’ of sex usually gets classified as obscene and offensive. No distinction is made between erotica, pornography or plain sex.
Children in Egypt don’t receive any kind of institutionalized sex education and many of them refer to sex casually as an ‘indecent act’. It is another matter altogether that sexual jokes and innuendoes are exchanged – only discreetly. There is considerable demand for explicit erotica, which can be bought on the streets of Cairo. People are interested to hear, watch and read it. Sexual expression is human – you simply cannot keep a lid on it. Instead of better integrating sex into the Egyptian mainstream, sex is officially rejected which can only lead to further surreptitiousness.
Some religious topics in Egypt are ultra sensitive. Clashes between the Copts and Muslims illustrate this sensitivity. Religion has played and continues to play a crucial role in the development of Egyptian culture and is often mistakenly used to justify customs and practices such as female genital mutilation.
Any publication that involves either religion or politics perhaps not surprisingly comes under intense scrutiny. Consider, for example, Political Islam, which was banned from AUC. Religious groups with a political agenda are classified as being most dangerous.
Egypt is not recognized as a civil state, but the government shies away from instituting the Shari’aa or Islamic code. The Egyptian religious advisor Mufti Farid Wasef recently said that Islam is a political system as well as a religion, which could legitimize the political agenda of some religious fundamentalists.
POLITICS OF CENSORSHIP
Although freedom of expression is officially sanctioned in Egypt, this is not always the case in practice. President Mubarak recently confirmed this during a meeting with Egyptian writers and intellectuals during the inauguration of the Cairo International Book Fair, which had banned quite a number of books from being featured. The president defined freedom of expression in Egypt as being within the bounds of preserving the Egyptian cultural and religious identity. Anti-censorship activists would rather that these limitations were more clearly specified.
The press law that President Mubarak approved in 1996 contradicts Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Egyptian law stipulates prison sentences of up to one year for journalists convicted of defamation or up to two years if the suit is filed by a public official. Fines can amount to LE 20,000 (US$5,900) for each offence. Other sections of the penal code – those specifying ‘inciting hatred’, ‘violating public morality’, ‘harming the national economy’ and ‘offending a foreign head of state’ – carry prison sentences of one to two years.
The lack of consistency is apparent if one compares the censorship exercised during the Book Fair with the apparent freedom during the Cairo International Film Festival. Uncensored movies, often with explicit scenes, are often screened during the festival. When the film festival was accused a few years ago of attracting audiences with its fare, Saad Eddin Wahba, then president of the Cairo Film Festival, responded: “Those movies are normal films watched by adults in most of the countries in the world. The case with the Egyptian audience is different because the audience is sexually deprived and the festival cannot treat them in two weeks.”
ON-AIR ABOUT CENSORSHIP
I decided to phone in during Unlimited, one of Radio Cairo’s live shows. I directed three questions at the guest, Dr Dabbous, a professor of journalism at AUC and deputy chief editor, Al-Akhbar. The first question was about censorship in Egypt and whether it would be lifted soon. Dr Dabbous responded that there was no official censorship in Egypt and that there was no country in the world where the press was 100 per cent free.
I then asked her about the nomination of Amr Mousa as secretary general of the Arab league and if this was bad news for the ministry of foreign affairs. Dr Dabbous congratulated Amr Mousa and said he was a wonderful minister and would be a wonderful secretary general of the Arab League. Declaring her support for the president’s decision, she added: “I am sure Egypt is going to make sure that the person who will take the position of the foreign minister is very efficient.”
Finally, I asked her about a possible successor to President Mubarak. Dr Dabbous quickly responded, “No (in Arabic). I don’t know. I have no idea about this, I have never thought of it.”
There is no denying the advantage of democratizing the state-owned media. If every ideology, trend and school of thought was alartistic freedom, society would be more balanced and productive.
The lack of consistency is apparent if one compares the censorship exercised during the Book Fair with the apparent freedom during the Cairo International Film Festival.