My book is no longer being censored - but many colleagues aren’t so lucky
Over the past few months, my book ‘The Egyptians: A Radical Story’ — published by Allen Lane / Penguin in January this year — has been impounded by the censor’s office at Egypt’s Ministry of Culture, and effectively banned from sale in the country. The book was withdrawn for ‘investigation’ by the authorities without any explanation, and repeated enquiries to multiple government ministries failed to elicit any meaningful response.
Today, I’m relieved to say that the book — for now at least — is back on the shelves and available once again in Egypt. An Arabic translation is due to be published next year.
A lot of people have been working on this situation behind the scenes, and I’m really grateful for the support of publishers Penguin, freedom of expression advocates English PEN and PEN International, and others in Egypt who for obvious reasons do not want their names to be known. We have been debating for some time how and when to make the details of the book ban public, and trying to find ways to rescind it. Thankfully, some of that pressure seems to have paid off.
The book, which you can read more details about here, attempts to explore Egypt’s revolution and counter-revolution from below, and includes criticism of the current regime’s woeful record on human rights abuses, police torture, and other acts of state violence. It tells the stories of Egyptian citizens from different backgrounds as they attempt to navigate this period of profound turmoil in the relationship between society and the state, a period in which many of those long excluded from the political stage have forced their way on to it and demanded a meaningful voice.
That process has been extremely discomforting for Egypt’s elites, and the book has been published at a time in which those beholden to the old patterns of power and authority are fighting back with exceptional brutality. In the eyes of its rulers, Egypt today is a country where only one, top-down narrative about politics, economics, stability and security is acceptable, and where alternative voices constitute threats that must be neutered.
I’m very happy that my book is now no longer effectively banned by Egypt’s government, but I’m also under no illusions regarding the role my relative privilege has played in that outcome. Egypt’s system of cultural censorship is byzantine, opaque and completely shielded from democratic scrutiny; a foreigner like myself, who is associated with a major international media organisation and can rely upon a good network of contacts to ask questions in the right places, stands a much better chance of plotting a way through it than an Egyptian colleague who might find themselves locked behind bars for daring to bring their books, films or artwork to a wider audience.
Under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a war on cultural freedoms — targeting novelists, satirists, publishing houses, galleries and theatres, among many others — is being waged. Writer Ahmed Naji is currently serving a two-year jail term for ‘violating public modesty’ (you can sign the petition against his imprisonment here); musicians, poets and TV hosts have been intimidated or arrested; blasphemy cases continue to be prosecuted by the state. An anti-terror law allows for the levying of huge fines against anyone publishing news that contradicts the official government narrative on ‘matters of national security’, and Egypt now incarcerates more reporters than any other country in the world bar China.
These facts give the lie to government claims that free expression is upheld in Egypt, that the constitution and the rule of law is respected, and that those not engaged in terrorism have nothing to fear. In truth, anyone willing to use their own voice in Sisi’s Egypt is at risk. More than 40,000 political detainees in the Sisi era can attest to that; the hundreds of Egyptians who have died in police custody under Sisi’s reign can do so only by their absence, as can the 754 already subjected to extrajudicial killings this year, or the almost five citizens a day who have been forcibly disappeared by the security forces, up to half of whom never return.
Earlier this year, Sisi gave an address to the nation in which he ordered Egyptians, “not to listen to anyone but me”. Near the end of my book, I quote the organiser of one of Sisi’s presidential campaign events, who admonished the assembled crowd for cheering during the former military general’s speech. “When the leader speaks, everyone should be quiet,” the organiser scolded. Sisi — and those who defend him both at home and abroad — clearly long for the day when all citizens obey that instruction. Solidarity with everyone who chooses, instead, to make some noise.