Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Ahmed Nagi

The continued imprisonment of the young writer Ahmed Nagi only adds fuel to an international campaign to vilify Egypt and its government, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was a sad day last week when the North Cairo Court convened to consider the plea filed by the lawyers of Ahmed Nagi to suspend his sentence pending appeal. Ahmed Nagi had been sentenced to two years in prison, not for having committed some crime but for having written a novel. It had been hoped that judicial justice would bring an end to this farce that has damaged Egypt’s reputation in all international political, cultural and legal forums. The judge refused to consider any of the four arguments in the defence’s plea and ruled to perpetuate the detention.

As I watched the young writer being led back to prison after that session, in handcuffs like some common criminal, my heart bled for the unforgivable insult delivered against Egypt’s ancient civilisational heritage and its pioneering culture by this unconstitutional ruling that equates writers and intellectuals with thieves and drug traffickers. The Egyptian Constitution, which was ratified by the people with an unprecedented majority, enshrines a principle found in all constitutions in the world. It states that defendants in cases involving publications crimes must not be subjected to penalties that deprive them of their liberty. In fact, this is the only principle that is underscored in two constitutional articles: 68 and 71. The intent of lawmakers was to emphasise its importance and to add a safeguard against its violation in a country in which the spirit of justice had been severely tainted by the large numbers of writers, intellectual, artists and journalists who suffered imprisonment and various forms of degradation under previous regimes.

It was shocking to see how the public prosecution pursued this suit. It was a scene straight out of the era of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Evidently, some Muslim Brothers and their followers are still operating in the corridors of some government agencies and act as though their organisation is still ruling the country. When this case first opened, former minister of culture Gaber Asfour and I stood agape as the prosecutor demanded the harshest possible sentence against the young writer for having written a novel. The prosecutor seemed totally oblivious to the existence of a constitution that regulates such matters and that explicitly prohibits the type of punishments he was seeking. Judge Ihab Al-Raheb, who initially heard the case, ruled to acquit Nagi out of respect for the constitution and on the basis its relevant articles, all of which he cited in the reasoning for his verdict.

The matter should have ended there, with the verdict of this great judge. But much to my surprise and that of the rest of the world, the prosecution appealed the verdict. This time, the court chose to ignore the constitutional principles that were upheld by Judge Ihab Al-Raheb and ruled to overturn Nagi’s acquittal and sentence him to two years in prison on the grounds that his novel was “offensive to decency”. One had thought that the fall of Muslim Brotherhood rule on 30 June 2013 had put an end to those extremist attitudes towards literature and the arts. We had thought we would no longer hear the type of fanatical ravings that called for the destruction of the Pyramids and the Sphinx because they were “idols”, that described the art of ballet as “obscene”, that regarded the works of the internationally celebrated novelist and Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz as “pornography” and that somehow justified overt indecency towards Egyptian female artists and performers on talk shows as occurred when male hosts asked their female guest stars how many men they had slept with.

Such attitudes and practices, which typified the Muslim Brotherhood era and which, to me, are far more offensive to public morals, threatened to cast us back to the ages of backwardness and decay. Fortunately, the 30 June grassroots revolution intervened in order to give prevalence, once again, to the civilisation that long held the world in thrall because of the excellence of its arts, literature, architecture and pioneering monotheistic thought.

How does the recent court ruling stand with respect to this legacy? I should stress here that this not just about Ahmed Nagi. It is about bringing thought to trial, in general, whether the defendant is Nagi, or Islam Al-Beheiri, or Fatima Naoot, or countless others.

Egypt is the victim of a vicious slur campaign. Its government is being systematically attacked for violating civil liberties and human rights. Then along comes this unconstitutional verdict to pour more fuel on the fire. Are they unaware of what is happening in the world? Do they not read? Do they not consider the consequences of their actions?

Ironically, the sales of Nagi’s The Use of Life have increased tenfold since the ruling against him. The novel is now being translated into foreign languages. If the work were really offensive to public decency, as those who filed the suit contend, then who is responsible for its dissemination on such a wide scale? Should they not be brought to trial and punished? And who was it who handed the agencies that are behind the vilification campaign against Egypt precisely what they were looking for on a silver platter?

A global campaign has been set into motion demanding the release of Nagi and “all imprisoned writers and intellectuals in Egypt”.

Good heavens! To think that Egypt, the cradle of civilisation and the beacon of culture throughout its history, has turned into a prison for writers and intellectuals. The attitudes and practices that have made this possible are regarded as abnormal in today’s world.

They are the subject of biting sarcasm because they jar so stridently with the spirit of the modern age and the progress that has been achieved in the realm of the freedom of thought and creativity.

PEN International, a civil society organisation dedicated to the promotion of literature and freedom of expression, launched a strongly worded petition drive urging President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to step in and halt this travesty. More than a hundred internationally celebrated literary figures signed the statement in protest against the “prosecution of the imagination”. Each, alone, is of a stature capable of moving world public opinion. The list includes two Nobel Prize winners — J M Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk — along with a number of other world-famous writers, such as the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood. We should add, here, that Nagi himself was the recipient of this year’s international PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Also, in honour of the imprisoned novelist, PEN International in collaboration with local writers federations in more than 72 countries has organised readings of Nagi’s works to be held simultaneously in these countries.

The continued imprisonment of the young Egyptian novelist perpetually spurs the vicious campaign being waged against Egypt since the popular uprising against Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2013. I hope that President Al-Sisi puts an end to this fiasco for which not only Ahmed Nagi but also all the rest of us are paying the price.

The president has recently announced that 300 of our young people who are currently in jail will be released soon. I hope that Ahmed Nagi is among them. I also long to see an end to judicial rulings that do injustice to our long and glorious civilisational history and a more stringent commitment to our higher constitutional principles, which no one has the right to violate.

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