Egyptian police on Sunday raided the office of a small independent press, Merit Publishing House, and detained a volunteer staff member for “being in possession of unregistered books without ISBNs,” implying they likely weren’t approved by government censors. The same staff member, Mohamed Zein, was briefly detained in 2015 for the same alleged offense.
Since its founding in 1998, Merit Publishing has fostered the vibrant avant-garde literary scene that thrives in Egypt despite (or often in reaction to) government repression. A 2010 article from The Guardian highlights Merit founder Mohamed Hashem’s successful business model of simply taking a chance on new, young, and working-class writers, steadfastly refusing to impose the in-house censorship common at mainstream Egyptian publishers.
This year, for instance, Merit published a new collection of short stories by Ahmed Naji–despite the fact that an excerpt from his last book Use of Life got him charged with “violating public modesty” and sent to prison for 10 months. He is currently free while awaiting a new trial after a court vacated his conviction in May.
News reports on the Sunday raid do not name the contraband books allegedly found in Zein’s possession, but the publisher’s lawyer Mohamed Eissa says that the charge is baseless in any case: some of the books seized did have ISBNs, while those that did not were personal gifts to Hashem and were not for sale. When Zein was previously detained in 2015, the guilty book was apparently Vodka by Sharaf Abdel Shafy, a journalist who has worked to expose media corruption in Egypt.
After his arrest on Sunday, Zein was scheduled to be questioned by prosecutors on Monday. We will be watching closely for updates!
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.