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All Stick, No Carrot: The State of Book Publishing in Egypt

Egyptian authorities are exploiting new tools and policies to stifle the country's book industry, leading to more censorship, restrictions, and prosecutions.


Egypt’s publishing industry, similar to other creative industries in the country, has suffered from ever increasing restrictions in the last decade. “Book publishing is a very dangerous profession in this country. Publishers can find themselves at the wrong side of the equation at any given moment because nobody knows for a fact what would anger the censoring and security bodies,” said renowned literary critic Sayed Mahmoud in an interview with TIMEP.

What does it really mean to be in the publishing field during this past decade? Through the voices of Egyptian publishers, cultural critics, lawyers, and researchers, TIMEP identifies the major trends that made book publishing a highly securitized field where fear, intimidation, and censorship became new norms. The article shows that the state has adopted a number of tactics starting in 2015 to stifle the book industry and enable censoring bodies to exert more control over content both before and after publishing. These tactics include using legal prosecutions of publishers and writers, raiding publishing houses, unlawfully asking publishers to remove books from shelves, and changing some regulatory publishing policies to allow for more censorship.

Exemplary cases

Between 2015 and 2019, Egypt’s public prosecutor mobilized three major court cases against a novelist, a publisher, and a poet that all ended in significant imprisonment sentences. This chain reaction began in April 2015 when a reader filed a case against novelist and writer Ahmed Naji and Tarek Taher, the editor in chief of the literary journal Akhbar El-Adab for publishing a sexually explicit novel. By November 2015, Naji and Taher’s prosecution started. Naji faced accusations of “publishing materials that violate public modesty and encourage indecent sexual behavior,” and Taher was accused of failing to conduct his duties as publisher. Despite being acquitted by a misdemeanor court in January 2016, the prosecution appealed the verdict only for a higher court to sentence Naji to two years in prison and punish the editor in chief with a financial fine only a month after their acquittal. Naji’s trial sparked massive national and international solidarity campaigns, but he still ended up spending over a year behind bars before a Cairo court of cassation ruled in his favor and canceled his sentence in May 2017.

The book industry received another blow in September 2017 when representatives of the Central Authority for the Censorship of Works of Art (CACWA) raided the Tanmia bookstore and publishing house in downtown Cairo. The book that sparked the raid was an Arabic translation of The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, by the Israeli historian Uri Bar-Joseph. The military prosecution accused Khaled Lotfy, the founder of Tanmia, of divulging military secrets. In April 2018 Lotfy was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison, and was released in November 2022.

While Naji and Lotfy were eventually released, the poet Galal El-Behairy is starting his seventh year behind bars. He was arrested in March 2018, days after the release of “Balaha,” a song that mocked the president, which El-Behairy wrote for the exiled singer Ramy Essam. The song was part of a poetry collection that was set to be released called The Finest Women of the Earth, a wordplay on a favored, albeit weak, hadith associated with the Egyptian army: “the finest soldiers of the earth.” After a smear campaign spread by media outlets, two lawyers filed two cases against El-Behairy accusing him of insulting the army and of religious defamation. 

His lawyer, Mokhtar Mounir, spoke to TIMEP about the poet’s trials, and explained that El-Behairy was facing two concurrent court cases: one in the Supreme State Security Court, and one in the military court. Despite completing the three year sentence he received in July 2018, the ministry of interior refused to release El-Behairy and he soon found himself facing the same charges in a new case in the Supreme State Security Court. He became yet another victim of “Egypt’s revolving prison door,” a well-documented systematic practice in which the Egyptian authorities re-imprison political prisoners in pretrial detentions for indefinite amounts of time that can go on for years. The publisher of El-Behairy’s unpublished book, Mohammed Hawwas, served a similar prison term as he faced similar charges as the poet. 

A stricter publishing policy

Prosecuting and imprisoning authors and publishers is neither unprecedented nor a practice specific to Sisi’s regime. However, incarcerating writers and publishers was rare before 2013. Hosni Mubarak’s era witnessed the flourishing of hisba cases, a legal principle that allowed Muslims to file cases to guarantee the “promotion of good” and “the forbidding of evil” even if they did not have any direct interest with the case. Islamist lawyers significantly instrumentalized it to take dozens of intellectuals, writers, and thinkers to court, particularly the 1980s and the 1990s. Most notable among these prosecutions was the case against the renowned Quranic scholar Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd, where the court declared him an apostate and forcibly divorced him from his wife on account of his academic writings about Islam. Islamist lawyers repeatedly invoked hisba and similar principles to sue literary and critical writers and publishers like Naguib Mahfouz, Gamal El-Ghitany, and later Sayyid Al-Qemany.

Harassing authors and publishers did not stop with hisba cases. In a 1991 court ruling which media outlets and human rights organizations described as “unprecedented,” the martial state security emergency court sentenced novelist Alaa Hamed to eight years in prison for writing a novel that “threatened national unity and social peace.” The novel’s publisher and printer received similar sentences for being accomplices. Hamed spent six months in prison before he was released on bail after intellectuals asked Mubarak to intervene during the annual Cairo book fair. 

It is the disappearance of this room for negotiation with the authorities that distinguishes the current wave of crackdown on authors and publishers from the ones we witnessed under Mubarak

“It is the disappearance of this room for negotiation with the authorities that distinguishes the current wave of crackdown on authors and publishers from the ones we witnessed under Mubarak,” commented literary critic Sayed Mahmoud to TIMEP. “The Mubarak regime realized the need to contain intellectuals for their crucial role in promoting and enhancing the image of the political regime. Unlike Sisi’s regime which is, at best, indifferent toward the intellectual community,” he added. 

In a similar vein, Ahmed Abd El-Meguid*, a founder of a publishing house in Cairo told TIMEP “Mubarak adopted the carrot and the stick policy with authors and publishers. Currently, [with the Sisi regime] it is all stick, no carrot.” The nature of the accusations have significantly changed as well. While they are still being tried for blasphemy and religious defamation similar to Mubarak’s regime, writers and publishers are increasingly facing charges related to insulting the Egyptian military or divulging military secrets.

Backdoor censorship

Egypt prides itself that books are not subjected to any form of prior censorship or restraint. After books are published, the Central Authority for the Censorship of Works of Art (CACWA) has the right to inspect and investigate the contents of books. But even with these powers, CACWA is not authorized to ban any book. The censoring body has to inform the prime minister who can issue a banning decision on the condition that the cabinet is in full session. 

The legal framework that organizes the publishing industry in Egypt has not changed much in the past decade, but the state is currently pulling a set of new policies in order to impose more restrictions and limitations on publishers. These restrictions include precluding or even refusing to grant new books an ISBN (the number used to identify published books), raiding publishing houses, silently ordering publishers to remove certain books, and banning some publishers from participating in Cairo’s International Book Fair.

Restricting ISBN as unofficial measure 

All publishers are required to obtain ISBNs from the Egyptian National Library and Archives for the books they intend to publish. “Under Mubarak, obtaining an ISBN used to be a very simple procedure, we used to receive it on the spot. Now, it has become a complicated and arduous task,” said Egyptian publisher Ahmed Abd El-Maguid* in his interview with TIMEP. Abd El-Maguid explained that publishers used to get ISBNs by notifying the National Library about the books they intended to publish and by providing copies of their national ID. Literary critic Sayed Mahmoud stated that in recent years the government became aware that this bureaucratic step could be a backdoor through which officials could exercise more control over what was getting published. 

In recent years, authors and publishers started to share stories about restrictions and difficulties in obtaining ISBNs for their books. In January 2017, the National Library denied granting an ISBN for a political book that was set to be published by Merit Publishing House. This precedent made the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) wonder whether the state would exploit this procedure more often. These restrictions became more formal in March 2017, when the National Library announced changing the procedures required for obtaining ISBNs. With the new policy, authors and publishers have to sign statements taking responsibility for the books’ content and also agree to face any consequences related to the published content. This new policy resulted in prolonging the time needed for issuing ISBNs. Publishers suspect that this extra period of time is used to further investigate the books the National Library deem sensitive and they believe that state security bodies are currently interfering in this process to gain more control over books before they are published. These suspicions do not seem far-fetched, especially that the new ISBN policy resulted in more and more books being officially denied ISBNs and therefore not getting published. 

Raids, book removals, and exclusions from book fairs

The crackdown on publishers and bookstores manifested in a wide range of practices. CACWA expanded its raids on bookstores and publishing houses in the last few years: it raided Merit publishing house both in 2015 and 2017, the Arab Network for Research and Publishing in 2018, and El-Maraya for Culture and Arts in 2022. The pretext used for these raids was ensuring that publishers were adhering to the publishing regulations by keeping records of their contracts with writers, using certified software programs, and making sure that the printed copies of the books were identical to the ones submitted to the National Library prior publishing. In many of these incidents the police arrested the founders of the publishing house or other employees in a spectacle meant to intimidate others to not cross any red lines. 

Though the banning of books does not lie within the powers of CACWA, the organization abuses its legal powers to investigate books and even asks publishers to remove certain books. Mona Masoud*, a publishing manager in Cairo told TIMEP that “after investigating a book, CACWA might decide that the book is not problematic, then there would be no issue. In other cases, the police inform the publishers that they must remove a certain book from shelves. It is on us, as publishers, to collect all the distributed copies from bookstores and submit a detailed list with the number of printed copies and the number of collected copies.” 

Documenting these violations therefore becomes almost impossible as most of the publishers are unwilling to talk

In the past couple of years, publishers were asked to remove books that covered a wide array of topics such as politics, social movements, sectarian issues, and economics, as well as novels, poetry collections, and books written by political prisoners or exiled writers. “The orders to remove books are never official as they are unlawful,” said Sayed Mahmoud. “In most cases, the publishing house does not announce the banning of their books. They would rather endure small losses than facing closing down completely. Documenting these violations therefore becomes almost impossible as most of the publishers are unwilling to talk,” he explains. 

According to the publishers and critics interviewed by TIMEP, the latest punitive measure has been banning some publishing houses from taking part in the Cairo International Book Fair. Indeed, during the latest edition of the book fair, some publishing houses were banned with no explanation for their dismissal. In their interviews with TIMEP, publishers complained that the general climate of fear and intimidation was pushing them toward more self-censorship. “Internally, we are now less willing to publish sexually explicit literary texts. With political books, we repeatedly ask authors to change titles we suspect authorities will not approve. We also ask designers to change book covers for the same reasons,” explained Mona Masoud*. 

As the prosecution of publishers and writers decreased by 2019, the Egyptian authorities exploited a wider range of tools instead, including unofficial practices of banning books as well as punitive measures. Changing the ISBN policies was a game-changer for the publishing industry as it allowed censoring bodies to have a say over which books were published and which ones were nipped in the bud. Through the claps of these measures, the state managed to quietly subjugate this already suffering industry, making it even harder for it to survive current times.

* Ahmed Abd El-Maguid and Mona Masoud are pseudonyms to ensure the safety of the people interviewed by TIMEP.

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