Two Egyptian writers face charges after a reader said a fictional sex scene left him physically debilitated. What the authors see as an incomprehensible injustice, prosecutors call an infringement of public morality.
Egyptian writer and journalist Ahmed Naji is to appear in court on Saturday. He faces charges of "infringing on public decency," after a chapter of his book "Istikhdam al-Hayah" ("The Guide for Using Life") appeared in "Akhbar al-Adab," a literary magazine where Naji works.
One of the magazine's readers, Hani Salah Tawfiq, filed a complaint against Naji in 2014, three months after the chapter from the novel was initially published. Tawfiq claimed that his heartbeat fluctuated, his blood pressure dropped dangerously low and that he is now seriously ill after having read Naji's fictional story.
After almost a year of investigations, Naji was notified by his lawyer, Mahmoud Othman, that he, as well as his editor-in-chief, Tarek al-Taher, will be facing charges and could get up to two years in prison and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (about $1,275 or 1,190 euros).
Because the excerpt appeared in a magazine, prosecutors regard Naji's text as a personal confession and an act in which Naji personally took part.
"I was describing a sex scene between the narrator of the novel and another main character," Naji told DW. "But the prosecution deals with it as if it were an article and not a novel. Instead of seeing it as a prose, they refer to it as a first-person journalistic piece."
Naji said the main problem is that he is being charged for actions made by the fictional characters he created in the book.
"They can't understand the difference between the book and reality, so the prosecution is asking me to elaborate on the deeds of the main characters as if it were me doing them," he said. "For example, one of the characters smokes hash, and I'm being investigated about it."
Books that include sex scenes or drug use are not banned in Egypt and if published and printed in the country, they also don't have to go through censorship. Police do, however, investigate complaints made to them by citizens and prosecutors decide whether to press charges, in this case for allegedly breaking public decency laws.
"Although there is no censorship on books and newspapers in Egypt, still any citizen can accuse authors of writing against religion or against God, or of disturbing the public morals and so on," Naji said.
'First journalism, now art'
Naji said his book had received official approval to be distributed in Egypt.
"But even this authorization doesn't prevent prosecutors from having a case against me," he added. "It doesn't make sense."
Although it doesn't happen often, this is not the first time Egyptian writers and artists are being charged for their art. In 2008, graphic artist Magdy el-Shafee was prosecuted under the "public decency" Law 178 for graphics appearing in his novel, Metro, which tells the story of one young man's struggle with a vortex of corruption as well as financial and social insecurity in modern Cairo. El-Shafee's case closed with him paying a $620 fine but not receiving a jail sentence.
"Although there is no censorship in Egypt, any citizen can accuse authors of writing against religion or against God"
Naji said the case being brought against him and "Akhbar al-Adab" editor-in-chief illustrate the grave situation of freedom of the press under the current Egyptian government. By using an argument based on "public morals" and the protection of cultural tradition and history, the government aims to control artists and limit freedom of expression, he added.
"The government already imposes strict control over newspapers and TV, and now they are heading towards the art and society," Naji said. "It's not only my problem: This week the government gets the authority to head the art and the music syndicate. Now they can basically haunt and catch anyone who is perceived as operating against these morals [of society]."