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Egyptians continue book swap despite theft

The street library initiative launched by an Egyptian-German businessman offers novels, poetry and nonfiction books in the busy streets of Cairo.

CAIRO — A few hundred books, a large social media network and a wooden sign that reads "Take a book and leave another" have created one of the most successful initiatives of 2017 in Egypt.

On Nov. 4 Nader Riad, an Egyptian-German businessman, and his team placed three wooden stands with a few dozen novels, poetry and nonfiction books in the busy streets of Cairo. The rules are simple: You can take a free book if you bring another one.

The simplicity of the book exchange contrasts with extravagant plans by the state in the past. For example, as part of the “Reading for All” initiative, which ran between 1991 and 2010 under the former president's wife, Suzanne Mubarak, huge sums of money were spent on TV advertisements to encourage people to read.

The street library, as the Egyptian media and social media users call it, was chosen by several Egyptian newspapers as the best initiative in 2017. It was widely promoted online and welcomed by many young people and bookworms, some of whom visited the stands and shared pictures on social media.

But the popular initiative also suffered setbacks. On the morning of Dec. 10, Cairo residents woke up to find that one of the book stands at al-Falaky Street was almost empty, rankling fans who expressed their disappointment online and feared the end of the street library.

However, Riad's team said in a press release, "The disappearance of some books from the library’s shelves does not mean the end or failure of the initiative. It only means that people need some time to embrace and get used to the idea of borrowing books." It continued, “We ought to focus on the bright side. We had expected that some of the books might disappear, but we are currently getting new ones and will check stands every four days and add more books when necessary."

There was little need. On the morning of Dec. 11, several young people rushed to the stand and filled it with dozens of books.

Ahmed al-Alfi, an engineering student and one of the people who donated books, told Al-Monitor, “Social media has made it a lot easier for people to respond to such an initiative. People’s enthusiasm and support for the idea will protect it against those who do not appreciate the value of a book.”

Alfi also called upon the Ministry of Culture to spread the initiative in other areas. The no-cost aspect promises to promote reading, given the high cost of living in general and books in particular. “I believe this initiative will also play a major role in promoting social engagement, integration and solidarity among Egyptians,” Alfi said.

Commenting on whether the Ministry of Culture will lend its support, an official who preferred to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor, “This would be a great idea, although it faces obstacles given the complicated procedures in the ministry. A nonprofit organization must be established first to set up stands, in addition to prior approval by every neighborhood and the waiting time for the necessary official approvals.”

Writer Mohammed al-Gizawi told Al-Monitor, “I do not expect the ministry to adopt such an initiative as it would rather deal with it from a security perspective. The Ministry of Interior closed both al-Balad and al-Karama bookstores in Cairo, not to mention that the Alef Bookstore was taken over by the government on charges that it was affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Many other known and licensed bookstores have been under the government’s supervision for security reasons — let alone a street library.”

Project manager Nagib Samir told Al-Monitor, “Given the positive response of the Egyptian youth, we are currently working on placing five more stands in different governorates after getting the permits from the local authorities, as we did for downtown. We are also considering expanding the initiative to reach other governorates, but we have yet to explore the option of getting support from the Ministry of Culture.”

He added, “The initiative is completely dependent on volunteer efforts by a small team responsible for checking the stands for book availability and making sure that there is no inappropriate content, especially because the stands are accessible to children."

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