The plot thickens
The death threat received by writer Sayed El-Qemni raises more questions than it answers, reports Rania Khallaf
On 15 July writer Sayed El-Qemni received a death threat via e-mail, purportedly from the Al-Jihad terrorist group. Two days later El-Qemni issued a statement saying that he had decided to quit writing as a response to the threats. Attached to the e-mail was a statement justifying the murder of Ehab El-Sherif, Egypt's envoy to Iraq, and the terse phrase "You are next".
The e-mail, the authenticity of which has not yet been proved by security services, said five members of Al-Jihad had been assigned the task of killing El-Qemni.
"I denounce everything I have written hitherto, which at the time I never thought of as infidelity," read El-Qemni's statement.
A best selling author in Egypt and several Arab countries, El-Qemni holds a doctorate in the philosophy of religions from Ain Shams University. Since he received the death threat he has refused to speak to the press, allowing his friend and publisher Khaled Zaghloul, owner of Masr Al-Mahrousa publishing house, to speak on his behalf.
Yet for many people the provenance of the death threat, and El-Qemni's public statement announcing his repentance, beg more questions than they answer.
"El-Qemni's decision to quit writing even before anyone is sure of the validity of the threat cannot help but cast doubt on his integrity as a writer, and raises questions over the seriousness of the intellectual project in which he has been engaged," says Abdallah Kamal, recently appointed editor-in-chief of the weekly Rose El-Youssef, magazine that had regularly published the writer's articles criticising the politicisation of Islam, and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood.
"We regularly received real death threats, especially in the 1990s when the magazine was attacking terrorist groups, but they never forced us to change policy. I just wonder why a writer would make such a hasty decision to abandon his work," says Kamal.
Political analyst Diaa Rashwan agrees. "I simply do not understand how a thinker could denounce his own project so easily," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
According to Zaghloul "this is not the first time that El-Qemni has received threats, it is just that this time the wording was particularly harsh."
"El-Qemni received the message on Friday and forwarded it to Rose El-Youssef the day the magazine goes to print which is why we did not mention it in last week's edition," says Kamal. "But once I read the e-mail I began to suspect that it was some sort of trick. Kamal also questions why the alleged assassins should state the manner in which El-Qemni is supposed to be killed, "by a car bomb or gunshot".
"If the threat was real, would they really warn him, suggest the scenarios and then give him a week in which to announce his repentance?" asks Kamal.
"The haste with which El-Qemni announced his repentance really does raise the question of why he did not wait until the security services had verified the threat. The whole thing looks suspiciously like a manoeuvre to market a new book, which explains why he has appointed his publisher as his spokesperson," says Rashwan.
So does El-Qemni seriously intend to quit writing?
"He does not feel secure," says Zaghloul, "and his decision reflects that insecurity. He has a family to protect, after all."
Kamal Habib, an ex-member of Al-Jihad group and presently an expert on religious extremist groups, goes so far as to suggest that the story is made up. "The story was fabricated by El-Qemni himself after Abdallah Kamal asked him to stop writing his weekly article," believes Habib.
It is a suggestion Kamal denies. "I was a member of the editorial board that supported the publishing of his articles several years ago. Why should I now adopt a hostile stand towards him, at a time when society is more ready than ever to debate ideas?"
"El-Qemni is an established author, he does not need this kind of publicity to market his books," argues Zaghloul. "And even if his weekly column in Rose El-Youssef was ending, this signifies only a change in editorial policy with Kamal becoming editor of the magazine."
In recent articles El-Qemni has criticised not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also accused Muslims' highest religious authority, Al-Azhar, of "failing to shoulder the responsibility of establishing the principles of tolerance and peace, and its candid failure... to confront terrorist and extremist groups".
"While the authenticity of the threat remains open to question it would be alarming if what we are witnessing is the return of such forms of blackmail to our society to a time when writers such as Farag Foda, Farouk Guweida, and Naguib Mahfouz were attacked," says Mohamed Salmawy, chairman of the Egyptian Writers Union (EWU).
"The EWU condemns any attempt to terrorise writers and artists. At this stage, though, we will not be issuing a statement until the seriousness of the threat can be verified."