Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
10 - 16 August 2000
Issue No. 494
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Worth fighting for

Freedom of Publication and Expression in Egypt: Cultural, Legal and Administrative Constraints Abdel Khaleq Farouq, Dar Al Kalima, Cairo pp. 221

This book, dealing with the current crisis in the freedom of publication and of expression in Egypt, appears at a particularly timely moment and provides a welcome new perspective on the issues involved. Its relevance is only enhanced when one considers the backdrop of cultural and political controversy that has been raging in the country lately, particularly since the republication of the novel A Banquet for Seaweed by the Syrian writer Haydar Haydar.

In dealing with the complicated issue of the freedom of publication and of expression, the author, Abdel Khaleq Farouq, who is both a journalist and an academic, investigates the background to the problem. Thus, in his first chapter he discusses the special nature of the current cultural environment in Egypt, which he considers to be one that provides a favourable terrain for extremist ideas to take root and for a discourse of conflict to flourish at various levels and in various directions. The result of this, he says, has been the disintegration and fragmentation of political and cultural life in the country and the prevalence of mutual distrust between the various trends of thought operative in society. A particular example of this is given with reference to literary criticism; here Farouq examines the disagreements between two eminent Egyptian literary critics and academics, Gaber Asfour and Abdel-Aziz Hammouda, showing how much more than academic matters of the proper reading of texts are at stake.

Having established this background, in chapters two and three, Farouq undertakes a valuable economic and statistical study of the printing and publishing industry in Egypt. In it he seeks to assess the industry's contribution to Egypt's overall economic activity and to compare the volume of Egypt's export of books and of other publications over the past two decades with that of other, similar countries. He presents an analysis and a classification of the 511 publishing houses, both governmental and privately run, currently registered in Egypt, and, in a further analysis, which is probably unprecedented in the field, goes one step further and classifies publishers according to their religious interests and their target constituencies. A 50-page appendix to the book contains an exhaustive list of the publishing houses in Egypt, classified according to category and providing relevant contact information.

It is not, however, until chapter four of the book, entitled " The Legal System Regulating the Freedoms of Opinion, Publication, Expression and Belief," that Farouq gets to the core of his subject -- the constitutional framework that regulates such freedoms. Farouq highlights the many positive features of this framework, tracing the development of provisions for the freedom of expression and of publication since those made under the 1923 Constitution and culminating in a nuanced consideration of provisions made under the Constitution of 1971. He is unequivocal in his view that the 1971 document is in every way superior to previous ones as far as such freedoms are concerned; in fact, Farouq argues, the 1971 Constitution is superior in many other ways as well. Nevertheless, he shows that such freedoms have had occasionally to be restricted since the document was drawn up, particularly as a result of political, partisan and other ideological pressures, such as those exerted by reactionary political forces, or by movements donning the mantle of Islam. Such restrictions have been reflected in the development of administrative decisions and regulations that restrict the freedom of publication and expression.

Such an historical approach to the question is fascinating, and it has the great virtue of putting current debates into their proper historical perspective. However Farouq becomes bolder in his approach when considering the attitude adopted by the various organs of the State to the manifestations of public freedoms, and, more specifically, to the freedom of expression in the fields of literature and the arts. Here Farouq notices that the authorities have sometimes shown little respect for such public freedoms and have sometimes even joined forces with the kind of "unofficial censorship" exercised by religious movements seeking to restrict the space available to intellectual innovators or to thinkers. The latest, though not necessarily the last, of these manifestations was the recent attack on Haydar Haydar's novel, which showed the kind of fascinatingly uneasy relationship that can sometimes exist between the authorities and the religious movements.

In chapter five of the book, entitled "Factors affecting the attitudes of the Egyptian Civil Courts towards the Freedom of Opinion and Expression," Farouq summarises the historical position of the courts vis-à-vis such freedoms. However, it is in his examination of the present situation that the book is likely to be most valuable, for here Farouq examines closely new factors affecting the attitude of Egyptian judicial bodies towards the freedom of expression. These factors he reduces to four.

First among these is the fact that law suits coming before the courts that have a bearing on the issue of the freedom of expression have recently markedly increased. There were some six million such cases in 1982, but by 1997 this figure had risen to 29.3 million, a rise that in itself points to an environment in which litigation is far more often resorted to. Secondly, and in part explanation of the first point, Farouq argues that there has been a "politicisation" of the judiciary over these years, with the courts being used as the terrain for the contestation of executive authority by various religious groups. Thirdly, the general judicial environment and the judiciary's functions underwent an important change when police and intelligence officers were admitted into the lowest levels of the prosecution service and into the administration. Such new elements, Farouq argues, introduced what he calls a "police mentality" and methods from the security services into what had hitherto been a civil structure. Fourthly, Farouq shows that there has always been something of a gap between the liberal-mindedness and tolerance of the constitutional text on the one hand and the sometimes restrictive provisions of the actual laws and regulations on the other. This gap in attitudes has inevitably caused some distortion and confusion over the judiciary's operations.

In the final parts of his text, Farouq moves on to analyse the attitudes of the judicial bodies towards the freedom of opinion and expression, as these have actually been reflected in rulings handed down by the various grades and levels of courts. The analysis here comprises a consideration of rulings given by a wide spectrum of bodies, ranging from the lowest Administrative Courts to the Court of Cassation, and from State Council Courts to the Supreme Administrative Court. The author pauses to consider rulings handed down by the Supreme Constitutional Court established in 1979. These, he argues, have been important victories in the fight for human rights in general, and for the freedoms of opinion, expression and publication in particular.

Finally Farouq focuses on the mutual distrust that has sometimes characterised the relationship between authors on the one hand and publishers on the other, and he dwells on the often disastrous implications of this for the cultural environment in Egypt. Given the wide range of material reviewed and the author's careful consideration of this, as well as his sensitive discussion of the current status of the issues, this book may be considered to be a serious attempt to address the issue of the freedom of expression and of publication in Egypt, and it is therefore worthy of the attention of academic and of cultural circles more generally.

Reviewed by Nasser Zaki

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