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Egyptian proposal to protect formal Arabic has journalists worried

Critics say a draft law intended to preserve traditional, formal Arabic and discourage the use of the modern Egyptian dialect threatens the freedom of the press.

CAIRO — Egypt's parliament is considering a proposal that could see the nation's already-beleaguered journalists jailed for using informal Arabic in their published work.

The proposal, introduced in October by the Arabic Language Academy in Cairo, is designed to preserve the language. It would require formal Arabic to be used in virtually all aspects of Egyptian life, including but certainly not limited to the media; all correspondence and documents of federal and local governments and all official ministries; civil service organizations and private clubs; trademarks, commodity labels and commercial data; street signs; artistic installations; all educational institutions; and discussions and presentations at symposiums, conferences, workshops and other meetings. 

The academy was founded in the 1930s specifically to develop and regulate the Arabic language. It is required by law to monitor and preserve the "integrity" of traditional Arabic and to publish an annual report on the state of the language and any "violations." In 2008, parliament gave the academy the power to impose sanctions on violators. In 2014, the academy noted what it said was a new tendency by the news media to use slang and foreign words, but stated at that time that it didn't want to "launch the sword of law in the face of this recklessness in classical Arabic."

That attitude has apparently changed. The academy's proposal has sparked concern among journalists, who fear it might actually come to fruition because it reflects the Egyptian state’s inclinations to control the media. The plan would require each media outlet to hire a state-approved language editor, ban publications in vernacular Arabic and punish violators with fines and prison sentences. Analysts and journalists consider the proposal a breach of the Egyptian Constitution, which protects the freedom of journalists.

The Ministry of Justice called a meeting Oct. 8 to discuss the proposal with the Journalists Syndicate, the National Media Council and a delegation from the academy, Al-Monitor learned from Abdul Hamid Madkour, secretary-general of the academy. The proposal currently is under review by the State Council. Journalists hope the council will amend it before referring it back to parliament.

Madkour said, “The academy prepared the draft law ... in response to pressing cultural, linguistic, educational and social needs. Some legislation to preserve the Arabic language had been issued under scattered laws, rather than one law.”

Kamal Mougheeth, an education expert at Egypt's National Center for Educational Research, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Education, told Al-Monitor the Arabic language is “in bad shape.” During the British occupation, intellectuals and novelists like Taha Hussein, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and Abbas al-Akkad protected the formal, archaic version with their literary works. Today, most readers and authors alike tend to use a colloquial version rather than standard Arabic.

Mougheeth noted that while some legal protections could do some good, the real solution lies in institutions working together to promote awareness of the state of formal Arabic and in having teachers use it in the classroom. He believes that the use of colloquial Egyptian Arabic in newspapers and articles doesn't harm standard Arabic and that criminalizing the act is unreasonable.

Analysts criticized the draft's Article 12, which specifically addresses the media, calling the section a violation of the Egyptian Constitution. The article calls for prison sentences and fines for writing in colloquial Arabic. The academy's Madkour, however, said he sees no problem with the proposal. To him, Article 12 merely reminds newspapers of what he asserts is their job: to ensure "linguistically flawless" content.

But Al-Wafd member of parliament Mohamed Fouad called Article 12 the work of the “thought police.” He told Al-Monitor, “Priorities must be set to protect the Arabic language, mainly by teaching and talking to students in correct Arabic.” Sanctions, he said, are not the solution.

Mahmoud Kamel, a member of the Journalists Syndicate board and rapporteur for the board’s cultural and technical committee, described the draft law as “catastrophic” and called on the board to examine it.

Kamel told Al-Monitor by phone that Arabic is a rich language that has changed with time. He noted that news writing has changed over 100 years and use of local vernaculars in journalism is nothing new. Such usage is correct, and if the draft law had been enforced in the days of poets Abdul Rahman el-Abnudi and Salah Jahin, Kamel said, they would have been jailed and the world wouldn’t have been introduced to their work.

Journalist Mohamed Shoair believes no language is sacred. Rather, he said, language is like a living thing that evolves. The language of Jahiliyyah poet Imru al-Qais is not the same as that of Egyptian poet Salah Abdel Sabour, just as Al-Mutanabbi and Amal Dunqul’s writings differ. Even the language of Naguib Mahfouz’s first writings differs from that of his last ones. Languages flourish as they evolve, not when they are consecrated by law, he noted Oct. 18 on Facebook.

The entire exercise might well be much ado about nothing. Shoair thinks some supposed proponents aren't truly concerned, but the proposal is drawing attention to traditional writing and giving it a boost in the public eye. 

“It’s strange that the Islamic jurists and sheikhs who always said the spread of the vernacular [wouldn't threaten] formal Arabic, since the latter is the language of the Quran … are now the ones afraid that [formal] Arabic will disappear. This draft law is a joke," he added.

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