Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji remains in prison pending an appeal of his conviction for “violating public modesty” with an excerpt from his book Use of Life. A few brave government officials, including Minister of Culture Helmy al-Namnam, have spoken out against the verdict and expressed concern about the state of free expression in Egypt.
Use of Life is an experimental work that incorporates visual elements, including comics drawn by Ayman al-Zorkany. The excerpt printed in 2014 in Akhbar al-Adab newspaper included references to sexual acts and drug use, and the 65-year-old reader who brought the charges claimed that it caused him heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, and severe illness. In addition to Naji’s prison sentence, the newspaper’s editor Tarek el-Taher also received a fine equivalent to about $1,300.
At trial, the prosecutor said that the excerpt was a “flagrant erotic article in which the charged writer published a text that spewed sexual lust and transient pleasures, using his mind and pen to violate public decency and good morals, inciting promiscuity.” Thanks to the blog ArabLit.org, English-speaking readers can now judge for themselves by reading the full excerpt in question.
According to an update on an online petition from the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP), al-Namnam attended a press conference organized by the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate in late February and “argued that literature that challenges social norms does not justify imprisonment, and that it was the man who filed the lawsuit against Naji, not Naji himself, who had harmed public morality.”
Seven out of 50 drafters of the country’s brand-new constitution also condemned the prosecution and verdict. Article 67 of the 2014 constitution states the following:
Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. Every individual has the right to express an opinion and to disseminate it verbally, in writing or as an illustration, or by any other means of expression or publication.
Egyptian human rights NGOs including the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) issued a joint statement calling for Naji’s sentence to be suspended, calling it “a warning sign that freedom of expression and art are in danger.” Incredibly, authorities have also reportedly threatened to prosecute Naji for smoking hash because the main character in his novel did so.
In appealing Naji’s sentence last month, his lawyer Mahmoud Othman said “we hope the judiciary will respect the constitution so it’s not just ink on paper.” Sign TIMEP’s petition here to let President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government know that the rest of the world agrees, and stay tuned for updates!
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.