Each year millions flock to the Cairo International Book Fair held in several cavernous halls and tents at the fair grounds here. They wade through throngs of people, rows of booths, and stacks of books - everything from Western classics to Arabic poetry and school texts - to attend one of the Arab world's biggest cultural events. They discuss politics, religion, and economy at daily symposiums - a unique opportunity for democratic dialogue in this region not usually known for free debate.
But events foreshadowing the two-week fair that started last Wednesday have put free expression in Egypt in question after the Ministry of Culture stopped printing three contemporary Egyptian novels in early January, calling them obscene. Writers and intellectuals immediately cried foul, fearing for the future of Egypt's democratic freedoms in a country that struggles to balance greater democracy with a growing Islamic trend.
"It is worrisome, because there is a kind of campaign by the Minister of Culture to undermine certain kinds of literature on the grounds that it is against public morality," says Ferial Ghazoul, an English and literature professor at the American University in Cairo. "Once you allow something like this to happen, how do you back down? They are playing with fire."
This struggle over free expression is not alien to Egypt; just last Saturday Egyptian writer Salaheddin Mohsen was sentenced to three years jail with hard labor for "blasphemy against Islam."
Nor is this struggle alien to this region. In the past year, hard-liners in Iran have closed some 30 pro-reform magazines and jailed dozens of journalists. Morocco banned three independent newspapers in December, after they published a letter implicating the prime minister in a 1972 coup attempt against the former king.
The current struggle here between Minister of Culture Farouq Hosni and Egypt's secular intellectuals began when an Egyptian parliamentarian and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest Islamist group, claimed the three novels contained "explicitly indecent material amounting to pornography." In a radical shift from his usual support of free expression, Mr. Hosni promptly sacked the head of the Cultural Ministry organization responsible for publishing the books and stopped printing the novels.
Following this dispute, a government official announced that verse of one of Arabic literature's most important writers, Abu Nawass, would not be sold in the market. The poetry, which mentions drinking and homosexuality, would only be available in libraries.
"There are freedoms, but they can't contradict our traditions," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in a meeting with intellectuals and writers at the book fair's opening. "We must guarantee that freedom of expression agrees with our values."
In response to the minister's actions, a dozen writers and editors resigned from their official positions. Others threatened to boycott the book fair and all Cultural Ministry-sponsored activities. Since then, 60 mainly young writers signed a petition to boycott the fair.
Writers here fear that the Muslim Brothers, given their large presence in parliament after last fall's election success, will push for even more censorship. "Literature is an easy target for [the Muslim Brothers]. You can reach a lot of people this way," says well-known novelist Gamal el-Ghitani, who resigned from his official post as book editor over the recent crisis. "The real danger now is that this attack from these Muslim Brothers and the minister will create a very negative atmosphere for writers."
But the Muslim Brothers maintain they support freedom of expression. "I'm for free expression and creativity, but not for immorality," says Gamal Heshma, the Muslim Brother who provoked the crisis. "I have a problem with these three books and with all similar books and writings"
Others here also say they are not worried about freedom of expression in Egypt - mainly because of the Internet. "The Net is quickly creeping around the country, and very soon we'll have information pouring out of light bulbs," says Hisham Qassem, publisher of the English-language weekly, the Cairo Times.
Mr. Qassem threatened to put his entire magazine, which had eight issues banned, on the Internet if the government withdrew copies from newsstands. Since then, he hasn't heard from the official censor.
Indeed, one of the three novels at the center of the controversy, "Before and After," by Tawfik Abdul Rahman, is already on the Internet. Just log onto www.aroob.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society