A Cairo court on Saturday rejected author Ahmed Naji’s third appeal for release from prison, where he has now served 10 months of a two-year sentence for “violating public modesty” with an excerpt from his book Use of Life which was reprinted in a state-owned newspaper in 2014. Naji still may have a chance at clemency, however, if President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi follows through on a promise to “review the status of those imprisoned for crimes related to freedom of expression and publishing.”
Use of Life is an experimental work that incorporates visual elements, including comics drawn by Ayman al-Zorkany. A 65-year-old reader claimed that an excerpt printed in 2014 in Akhbar al-Adab newspaper caused him to have heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, and severe illness because of its references to sexual acts and drug use. In addition to Naji’s prison sentence, the newspaper’s editor Tarek el-Taher also received a fine equivalent to about $1,300.
Also this week, a parliamentary committee rejected two proposals to abolish jail terms for publishing-related “offenses” like Naji’s, even though such sentences directly contradict Egypt’s new constitution of 2014. One MP, Abul Maaty Mostafa, went so far as to say that “if the penalty of incarceration in cases of indecency contradicts the constitution, then the constitution is flawed.” Mostafa also said that Nahguib Mahfouz, one of Egypt’s most revered novelists who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, was “a great author, but an indecent one” who should have been prosecuted during his lifetime if only someone had filed a case against him. Mahfouz died in 2006 at the age of 94.
The parliamentary committee did agree, however, that charges for “violating public modesty” should be lodged only by government prosecutors and not by members of the public, as was the case with Naji and the satirical TV puppet Abla Fahita.
Naji’s next best hope for release now lies with another parliamentary body, the Detained Youth Committee, which Sisi established in October in an attempt to calm tensions with Egypt’s restive young people who are angered by high unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, and attacks on free expression under his government. The committee has already issued one list of prisoners to be released that did not include Naji, but one MP has hinted that he could still be on a future list.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.