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Egypt, justice and fiction

Kerstin Knipp / jsMay 16, 2016

Egyptian author Ahmed Naji has been sentenced to two years in prison for a few erotic passages in one of his novels. A global reading event has been held in his honor. These are tough times for freedom of expression.

In this undated image Egyptian author Ahmed Naji poses for a photo in Cairo, Egypt.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Y.H. El Din

A racing heartbeat, hypertension and twitching eyes - those were the symptoms he had after reading a few passages of the novel's text. That's why one reader of an excerpt from Ahmed Naji's book "The Use of Life" filed a suit against the author. Then four state prosecutors set to work. In February, Ahmed Naji was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison. The offense? Violation of the sense of decency.

The passages in question deal with sex and smoking hashish. This past week, readings were held around the world for Ahmad Naji. The initiators, among them Nancy Okail, executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) in Washington, D.C., are demanding the author's release.

On Monday, PEN America will honor him with its Freedom to Write Award, which his brother will be accepting on his behalf in New York. "Naji's sentencing is emblematic of the Egyptian government's deeply troubling crackdown on free expression," states a protest letter addressed to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and signed by 120 international artists, including authors Dave Eggers and Philip Roth, musician Patti Smith and filmmaker Woody Allen.

In December 2015, shortly before he was convicted, Ahmed Naji had granted an interview to Germany's "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper. In that interview Naji pointed to the fictitious nature of his book. He said that he was not reporting on real events, but rather had created an imaginary world. "State prosecutors have failed to understand that this is a novel with fictional characters. They are treating it as a factual report."

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi sits in a meeting
Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi favors unity of opinionImage: Getty Images/Afp/K. Desouki

'An artist and an intellectual'

Ahmed Naji has had a good relationship with Deutsche Welle. During the 2011 Arab Spring protests, he spent several weeks working with DW's Arabic news team. After that he became a freelance correspondent for DW in Cairo.

"I remember Ahmed as an artist and an intellectual," said Rainer Sollich, deputy editor of DW's Arabic desk. "At the time, Ahmed Naji was full of hope. He was certain that he would be entering a better future in which his county would be more free and democratic. He was very disappointed when the Muslim Brotherhood took over under Mohammed Morsi."

Sollich said that Naji committed himself to using art as an instrument for achieving freedom. "It is especially tragic and sad that he has now been convicted by a successor government, one that came to power on the promise that it would make such freedom possible again."

'Pressure on the media'

The sentence, however, is fitting for the path that Egypt has taken against journalists under el-Sissi's leadership. "Authorities have set their sights on critics and dissidents," wrote the human rights organization Amnesty International in its 2015 annual report. "Media professionals that document human rights abuses or question the authorities' claims risk arrest and criminal prosecution. Journalists that report on military activities do so under the threat of unfair trials before military courts."

Shortly after the verdict was announced, Mai El-Sadany, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute, explained that it was handed down in the context of general pressure on the media. "Academics have been arrested at airports, cartoonists bullied because of their work, and media offices raided," she said.

Journalists and photojournalists hold banners as they demonstrate in front of the journalist's syndicate in Cairo against repeated attacks on members of the press in Egypt on April 4, 2014.
Journalists in Cairo have long demonstrated against attacks on the pressImage: AFP/Getty Images

According to the organization Reporters without Borders (RWB), 23 journalists are currently being held in Egyptian jails. In RWB's 2016 World Press Freedom Index, Egypt landed in 159th place, out of a total of 180. President el-Sissi himself made his thoughts on the role of the press clear last October when he declared, "The media and the state should not be of different opinions. Let's see to it that we do not have different opinions."

Pressure mounting on the government

At a time when economic success is nowhere to be seen, the government has no use for dissenting opinions. This month the German federal government's business development agency Germany Trade & Invest wrote, "The outlook for economic development in Egypt is hazy. The growing budget deficit and extremely negative trade balance are both cause for concern. Currency devaluation and the introduction of a planned value-added tax will also likely drive up inflation." Unemployment officially stands at about 13 percent.

This situation could help explain why four state prosecutors were involved in the case against Naji. "Normally there is just one," explained the author when talking with the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" newspaper. "But they knew that a lot of journalists would come to the trial, so they used it as a chance to present themselves as guardians of public morality."

When economic success is absent, one may assume that the state would like to at least present symbolic successes - such as protecting Egyptians' sense of dignity against those who would do it harm. And that is just what the court convicted Ahmed Naji of doing. The question of who decides what exactly that sense of decency is, remains.

A picture taken from the building of the National Democratic Party (NDP) shows shows the October bridge (L) and Ramses Street on May 31, 2015
Naji's novel paints a gritty picture of CairoImage: Getty Images/M.El-Shahed

But it is also possible that the novel fell out of grace with authorities because of its unvarnished portrayal of everyday life in contemporary Egypt. Elisabetta Ross, who translated the book from Arabic to English, said the novel had two main protagonists. The main character is Cairo, and the other is a young Egyptian named Bassam. "He leads a frustrating life in a metropolis in which it is impossible for him to laugh or express himself. Everything is hard in the dirty and decrepit city."