Imagine this: you are sitting, sipping a cup of coffee in the morning and sifting through the pages of a literary weekly, Akhbar Al-Adab, and you happen upon this excerpt from a book. You read it and you are shocked. It has indecent sexual content and the characters are also smoking hashish! You can’t handle this, the words are physically assaulting you; you are literally falling ill. You experience heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure. How can this be published? It offends public decency! It threatens the very fabric of our society.
Fear not, for if this happens to you, simply take it up to the courts, file a lawsuit, and the writer will probably end up in jail for offending your delicate, sensitive spirit.
Ahmed Nagy has so far served more than six months of his two-year prison sentence for the crime of “offending public decency” after he was sued by a citizen who read an extract from his novel, The Use of Life, in a Akhbar Al-Adab. Because the novel was published by Dar El Tanweer, a Lebanese publisher, it was already scrutinised but approved by official censors. But in the midst of the absurdity of it all, this bears no significance—you can’t stop a witch-hunt.
Now, Nagy’s case is not an isolated incident. The crackdown on freedom of speech is not a new thing; there are numerous cases in which defendants have been sentenced for crimes like “offending public decency” or “contempt of religion”. Islam al-Behairy, the host of a popular TV show was sentenced to five years in prison, which was later reduced to one year on charges of “blasphemy” after being sued by another concerned citizen. Not to mention the thousands of prisoners currently serving sentences or being detained for politically opposing the government, under charges that include “trying to destabilise the country” or simply “demonstrating” (which is now outlawed in Egypt without getting prior official approval). The range and diversity of the tools used to restrict freedom of speech across all fields is indeed an impressive and indispensible asset for the witch-hunters.
When asked if there is a difference between different regimes in restricting freedom of speech, Amr Ezzat from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (which is currently facing the threat of being shut down by the government) replied: “This issue is layered and it doesn’t necessarily just reflect politics. The judiciary system in Egypt in general is conservative; it’s very rare to see judges in Egypt using some of the articles that defend freedom of speech in their rulings. The Egyptian laws have some articles that defend freedom of speech and a lot of articles that restrict it. Most judges in Egypt lean towards restricting the freedom of speech in their interpretation of the laws.
Ezzat continued: “Experienced lawyers can tell you that the biggest deciding factor is the mood of the judge. Some judges are known to be more moderate or liberal while most are conservative. Direct state influence is not visible when it comes to the cases. Maybe it’s a factor at play when the judges make the ruling as they feel their hands are not tied to the current government disposition towards restricting freedoms. The defendants that are not well known, especially when it comes to contempt of religion charges, usually get the worst hearings. When it comes to someone famous like Adel Imam (a famous Egyptian actor), the government tries to put the case in the district of a more liberal judge so that it doesn’t embarrass itself. In Ahmed Nagy’s case specifically, the ruling was a bit surprising because usually the state does not want to clash with the intellectuals. There were always some mediations and the Ministry of Culture has acted as a mediator occasionally. You don’t want to put writers in prison, not because of freedom of speech but because it will portray a negative image of the state. But this all depends on the individual judge presiding over the case and what his background is, and what he will take into account in his ruling.”
Amr added: “Maybe even the conservative Muslim Brotherhood judges are more predictable and play with fixed rules according to a clear ideology and school of thought, but you get to other ultra conservative judges, which make up most of the judiciary, and there are no rules. They judge according to their very different interpretations of what is “proper” and “religious”.
These freedom of speech cases and prison sentences are nothing new, they are just highlighted when someone famous is in question. The number of cases for “offending public decency” and “contempt of religion” have risen sharply since the 25 January Revolution, and the people that are not well known get even harsher sentences.
Yasmin Hossam, the well-known defender of political prisoners and Ahmed Nagy’s lawyer, commented: “I feel that every single day freedom of speech is restricted more and more, targeting anyone trying to exercise this constitutional right in a context that does not agree with the state’s in any way or form. These people are given prison sentences or defamed by state-controlled media. We have numerous examples of this occurring to anyone who tries to protest or voice a political objection and even those who are just doing their jobs—writers like Ahmed Nagy.”
Yasmin added: “Government oppression hasn’t changed much since Mubarak’s time. It has only increased in intensity as the natural outcome of a fascist, rightist government that doesn’t allow anyone to think outside of the parameters defined for them. If you think outside of them in any way, even in literature, then you may think outside of them in other areas like economics or politics. Any military regime has very defined limits for art and creativity—you all have to think the same way.”
When asked if the rulings in the freedom of speech cases go to the concerned judge only or if there are any other political influences, Yasmin answered: “It starts with the judge’s own creed and his political affiliation along with the orders that he receives. As a lawyer, I saw numerous judges say that they took and followed orders from the state before rulings in political and state security cases. Most judges belong to the far right, seeing themselves as more conservative, more religious defenders of virtue—the social and political status quo. They impose their personal beliefs on people, ruling against the law, human rights, and international treaties in many occasions. The biggest issue is that they think of themselves as above questioning or accountability, and unfortunately, they are.
When asked about the national and international pressure regarding Nagy’s case and whether it made any difference, Yasmin answered: “It hasn’t made a difference. We’ve seen wide national and international condemnation and solidarity, but the fact is that there was no regard for the law when it came to the verdict. There is a sense of impunity and a belief that the judiciary is above any accountability, with rulings solely based on the judge’s own creed. Ahmed was acquitted by a judge abiding by the law in the first degree court, only for this ruling to be appealed by the prosecution, which even tried to add more charges based on their own personal prejudice. One prosecutor wanted to add drug charges because some of the made up characters in the novel used them.
Yasmin continued: “Even the intentionally slow process in the appeals court is a form of corruption, the court postponing hearing political and freedom of speech cases as a tactic to add to the suffering of the innocent. We filed a motion for suspending the sentence pending the appeal on 16 July, which is Ahmed’s legal right. It was denied because the appeal happened to be in front of the same judge that sentenced him. The same judge that said, ‘I don’t care about the constitution.’ We filed another motion which will be ruled on this Saturday, 27 August, with a new legal recourse that we hope the court will listen to and correct this grave injustice.”
When asked how Nagy is and if he is still optimistic, Yasmin answered: “He always remains an optimist in spite of everything. He is working on his new novel in prison, but he is human, and like any human, prison is a very difficult experience. Ahmed is a writer, an artist with a vivid imagination and a heightened perception of his surroundings—it’s definitely taking a toll on him.”
Yasmin hopes for reason and a fair ruling in the midst of the madness. She says that they should realise that outlets like art and literature are all people have been left with given the government’s oppression in politics and all other venues, and it’s not in their best interest to leave the people with no outlet—otherwise they’ll explode.
Mohanad Elsangary is a social and political activist who used to head the media department for the Bassma movement.