Egyptian writer who ‘violated public decency:’ An open-and-shut case?
The lawsuit was filed by a reader who said he got “heart palpitations and an extreme feeling of sickness"
Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in jail following the publication of a “sexually explicit” excerpt from his novel “The Use of Life” in state-owned literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. The prosecutor said Naji “published a text that spewed sexual lust and transient pleasures, using his mind and pen to violate public decency and good morals, inciting promiscuity.”
The lawsuit was filed by a reader based on the alleged impact the excerpt has had on him: “Heart palpitations and an extreme feeling of sickness along with a sharp drop in blood pressure.” The verdict left many concerned about freedom of expression in Egypt, yet unraveled others’ ambiguous stance on the protection of public morals.
Members of the Constituent Assembly, which drafted the 2014 constitution, issued a statement calling the verdict unconstitutional. “Article 67 of the constitution stipulates that freedom of artistic and literary creation is guaranteed and the state shall promote art and literature, sponsor creators and protect their creations, and provide the necessary means of encouragement to achieve this end,” said the statement.
It added that it was unconstitutional to file lawsuits to confiscate works of art or issue jail sentences against artists. “The parliament needs to review all laws that violate the right to freedom of expression.”
Sayed Mahmoud, editor-in-chief of Al-Qahira magazine, which is issued by the Culture Ministry, said Naji’s case was indicative of the crisis that resulted from the contradiction between the constitution and the law: “A new constitution was drafted, but laws were not modified accordingly.” Mahmoud is referring to law 178 of the Penal Code, which punishes anyone who creates or circulates indecent publications, pictures, paintings, symbols or adverts.
Naji got the maximum sentence stated in the law - two years. Following the verdict, Al-Qahira left its first page blank with only the words “No to putting imagination on trial,” referring to the hashtag launched by activists and intellectuals in support of him.
Former Culture Minister Gaber Asfour said the verdict highlighted double standards in Egypt: “The state has two faces: one that calls for respecting the constitution and another that does not respect the constitution. We have a constitution, but it is not put into effect.”
Asfour pointed to the fact that Naji was acquitted the first time the lawsuit was filed, then when the verdict was appealed by the prosecution, he was found guilty. “This means that the verdict depends on the whims of the judge and whether he supports a civilian or religious state.”
Naji’s lawyer Mahmoud Osman said sexual content in literature was not new: “Several novels by Nobel laureate Najib Mahfouz have sexual content. Should he have been sent to jail as well?”
Prominent novelist Ibrahim Abdel Maguid called the verdict “absurd,” since it assumed that creativity and imagination could be put on trial. He scoffed at the idea that Naji’s novel would violate public decency. “Egypt tops the list of countries that search for pornographic content on Google. Now their decency is violated by a novel?”
Novelist Hisham al-Kheshen called the content of Naji’s novel “intentional vulgarity” rather than literary imagination. “He did that only for the sake of fame,” Kheshen said, adding that this still did not justify his imprisonment. “The editor-in-chief of the magazine that published the chapter is the one who should have been penalized.” The editor-in-chief, Tarek al-Taher, was fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,277) for publishing the excerpt.
Journalist Gamal Sultan said it was important to distinguish between solidarity with Naji and publication of the excerpt. “While I do not agree with imprisoning Naji, I disagree with publishing part of the novel in a state-owned magazine that is expected to respect the values of society,” he said. “Naji intentionally published an indecent excerpt of the novel in a cheap attempt to be in the limelight.”
Sultan said the problem of intellectuals was that they supported each other blindly under the pretext of freedom of expression, without looking at each case. “Doing this, they make it seem like freedom means indecency and the use vulgar terms.”
Journalist Abdel Nasser Salama objected to the “fuss” intellectuals made around the case. “I challenge any of those intellectuals to include part of Naji’s excerpt in any of their works, or read parts of it on TV, or give it to their sons and daughters to read,” he said, adding that there was a huge difference between creativity and indecency.
Journalist Dandarwi al-Hawari said there was a difference between freedom of thought and freedom of expression. “When you express a certain thought you need to respect society and traditions, and yes there are rules for expression,” he wrote. “To hell with the kind of freedom Ahmed Naji and his like promote.” Dandarawi called Naji’s writing “the literature of brothels.”
Anchor Mohamed Kheir refused to call the novel literature: “This is only sexual content falsely called literature. It is not about sex. Many of our greatest writers talked about sex; it is the pornographic way of writing about sex.”