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Publishers, writers watch from behind bars as Cairo Book Fair wraps

Egypt's restrictive cultural environment marred this year's Cairo International Book Fair with the recent arrests of publishers and closures of community libraries and bookstores.

With a record 900 publishers participating and a massive turnout of 3.5 million visitors, the 51st Cairo International Book Fair wrapped up on Feb. 4 and has been hailed by organizers as a resounding success. But it has also been criticized by free speech advocates for banning some controversial titles and excluding a number of publishers. 

"The censorship at the [fair] is part of a wider state of repression and muzzling of free speech and expression in Egypt that has seen hundreds of websites blockedcommunity libraries shut down and dozens of journalists imprisoned in recent years for no crime other than expressing a dissenting viewpoint," lamented Gamal Eid, head of the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

Continuing a trend that started in 2015, books by some prominent members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood such as Sayyed Qutb, Hassan El Banna and Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi were absent from the shelves this year. The books were banned on grounds that they "spread radical ideology and sow sedition," according to Nancy Samir of the Egyptian General Book Organization, the organizer of the book fair.

She told Al-Monitor that there was an entire section devoted to Islamic books at the fair this year, but acknowledged that all participating publishers had been required to send in lists of the titles to be displayed ahead of the event.

A number of Islamic publishing houses were excluded from this year's event. Some of their applications for participation rejected by security officials and other publishers purportedly owned by members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood had been seized by the state.

The authorities went a step further this year, extending their exclusion beyond "militant" publishing houses. Tammia, a publishing house founded by jailed Cairo publisher Khaled Lotfy, was also sidelined by the fair's organizers, who cited security concerns.

Last April, Lotfy was sentenced by a military court to five years in prison for "spreading rumors" and "divulging military secrets." The charges were in relation to Tammia's distribution of an Arabic translation of a politically sensitive book by Israeli novelist Uri-Bar Joseph. The disputed book, “The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel,” is a biography of late Egyptian businessman Ashraf Marwan, who was also the son-in-law of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser and a senior aide to his successor, Anwar Sadat. Marwan is widely believed to have been a double agent. Israel claims he was the Mossad's "greatest spy in Egypt," while Egypt insists Marwan had misled Israel during the period leading up to the October 1973 war.

"Marwan carried out patriotic acts that it is not yet time to reveal," Mubarak was quoted as saying after Marwan's funeral. Marwan's true identity and his death after falling from a fifth floor balcony in his London home in 2007 remain a mystery to this day. Meanwhile, Lotfy languishes in prison for distributing a translation of “The Angel” that was already available in bookstores in English. It has also been made into a $12 million-budget film that has been available on Netflix since September 2018.

Lotfy's sentence and the repeated rejection of appeals for his release — the final appeal was rejected by the Supreme Military Appeals Court in late December — has been decried by writers, publishers and rights advocates.

Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji, who was himself imprisoned for obscenity, expressed solidarity with Lotfy in a series of tweets that also condemned the five-year sentence handed down to the publisher. "We call on readers, intellectuals, all believers in freedoms, Arab and international publishers, journalists, cultural and civil society institutions to take a clear and unequivocal stand to bring this unjust (ruling) to an end," Naji wrote Feb. 23, 2019. 

In February 2016, Naji was detained and sentenced to two years in prison for "violating public morality" after excerpts from his 2014 book "Using Life" were published in the state-funded literary magazine Akhbar El Adab. The complainant who filed the lawsuit against Naji claimed that reading the texts had caused him "heart palpitations, sickness and a drop in blood pressure." Naji was released in December 2016 after spending 10 months in Tora, an infamous high security prison in Cairo, pending a final ruling on his appeal.

Kristenn Einarsson, chair of the International Publishers Association's Freedom to Publish Committee, condemned the ruling as "incomprehensible." In a statement published on the organization's website Jan. 30, she expressed her disappointment that the Cairo International Book Fair did not support Lotfy by giving his publishing house a stand at the fair.

Eid also denounced Lotfy's imprisonment and the decision to exclude Tammia from the book fair as "government hypocrisy." He told Al-Monitor, "The state claims that education and knowledge are important but when a publisher is jailed and his publishing house is denied access to the book fair, this reflects a different, dark reality."

Those actions are just the tip of the iceberg: In November 2017, the offices of Merit Publishing in downtown Cairo were raided by police and a young volunteer who was working there was briefly detained. Merit was raided again a month later but this time, several books were confiscated and its owner was taken in for questioning by police. A year earlier, several branches of Al Karama community libraries founded by Eid for children in deprived neighborhoods were raided and shuttered by security forces after the government deemed them "seditious spaces."

In September 2018, Ayman Abdel Moati, director of distribution at Al Maraya Publishing, was arrested in a police raid on the publishing house. He was charged with "spreading fake news on social media, joining a terrorist group and aiding the group in its activities." Meanwhile, the state has also seized the assets of the ALEF bookstore chain — Egypt's largest with branches nationwide — on suspicion that its owner, Omar El-Sheneti, is a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. El-Sheneti, an economist and founder of the Multiples Group Investment Firm, was arrested and detained in June 2019 on charges of collaborating with wanted Brotherhood members outside the country who were plotting against the government.

The closures of bookstores, the arrests of writers and publishers and the state's seizure of assets allegedly belonging to Muslim Brotherhood members cast a shadow over the event celebrated as the Arab world's largest and most important book fair. Amid rising concerns over freedom of expression and the future of the publishing industry in Egypt, the fair's slogan of "Cultural Diversity" stood in stark contrast to the reality of the country's restrictive cultural environment.

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