The Arab Spring’s best legacy: Egyptians are now reading once-banned books

Some stories are universal.
Some stories are universal.
Image: Mahmoud Eliraqi
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In his 25 years manning a stall at Cairo’s storied Ezbekiya book market, Ali El Shaer has often had to revise his stock. When local students favored socialist treatises, he bought Karl Marx by the carton. As the country grew more socially conservative, he lined his rickety shelves with ornate Qurans and histories of the Prophet Mohammed’s life.

The past few years, however, have created a demand for an altogether different variety of literature.

“People want things they couldn’t really read before,” he said, grinning as he pushed aside a stack of medical textbooks to reveal two leather-bound Arabic editions of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which is deemed blasphemous by many Muslims. “After the revolution, they just want to be challenged.”

Conventional wisdom holds that the Arab Spring died a death amid brutal civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and that Egypt’s own brief democratic flowering was stamped out after the generals deposed president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013. But for those enmeshed in Cairo’s literary scene, the early promise of the uprising has yet to fully fade.

Books on sale at a Cairo bookstall.
Books on sale in Cairo include George Orwell’s “1984” and Ahmed Mourad’s “Vertigo”, a thriller about corruption in Mubarak-era Egypt.
Image: Mahmoud Eliraqi

Books that were once banned, or at least deeply frowned upon, such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, are among the bestsellers at many bookstores in downtown Cairo. (The latter book, in particular, appears to have struck a note with Egyptians tired of living under an authoritarian government). Mildly sexually explicit fare by the likes of Milan Kundera, previously tucked behind counters to avoid the unwelcome attentions of roving policemen, is also prominently displayed.

But the really controversial titles have come from the country’s crop of small, independent publishers. Freed from the shackles of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak’s rule when he was ousted in 2011, the Sefsafa publishing house rushed out a host of daring material, including Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Temptation of Absolute Power, whose critique of the system might have landed her in jail some years before.

Another publisher, Madarat Research and Publication, seized upon the power vacuum following Mubarak’s toppling to print and distributed a nuanced take on the political theory of Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the conservative Dar al-Shorouk, Egypt’s largest privately owned publisher, produced a few critical takes on the previously untouchable former president, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“The taboos have totally changed, as the hierarchy’s priorities have changed,” said Shereen Aboul Naga, a professor of literature at Cairo University. “They’re trying to look modern with a capital M.”

The beginnings of a backlash

One norm has remained much the same. AUC Press, the leading English-language publisher, submits all books about Islam for inspection by clerics at Al Azhar, Egypt’s top religious body. And El Shaer at the book market is careful to keep his prize Rushdies well concealed for fear of drawing the ire of passing ultra-conservatives. Not all his colleagues share his liberalism: a neighboring stallholder appears to have deliberately dumped Darwin’s Origin of Species in the fiction section.

There are increasing signs also that publishers’ space to print as they please might be shrinking.

Ahmed Waguih, at Madarat, would like to publish a follow up to the El-Banna book, but is worried about the consequences. Since ousting Morsi in mid-2013, the military-led government has banned the Brotherhood, killed hundreds of its adherents and jailed thousands. At the Cairo International Book Fair in February, police rifled through Waguih’s stall. “We’ve all begun to self-censor,” he said.

Sales of The Temptation of Absolute Power have also tailed off considerably since newspaper critics stopped reviewing it after the 2013 coup. “No one wants to criticize the military as hard as this book,” said Mohammed El-Baaly, Sefsafa’s owner.

Dodging the censors

But despite several setbacks, there are also signs that this literary glasnost might have some life left in it.

Reading appeals to a much smaller proportion of the population than TV and film. Some officials appear content to let the book world be when print runs rarely extend much beyond 1,000 copies.

Moreover, the revolution appears to have roiled Egypt’s censorship authorities, which previously presided over all cultural output with an iron first. The censorship board is torn between liberal revolutionaries and Mubarak-era appointees, and Sefsafa, for one, has taken advantage of the impasse to sidestep the government requirement that it dispatch at least 10 copies of new publications for approval.

They’re very bureaucratic. They won’t come after me. It would take too much time and money,” El Baaly said. In a clear violation of a Mubarak-era censorship order, another publisher has begun re-printing Metro, a graphic novel about state corruption, seven years after most copies were seized and pulped.

“The past four years of flux also appear to have sparked some serious soul-searching within Egypt’s state publishing house, the General Egyptian Book Organization (GEBO), whose heavily subsidised books and superior distribution networks ensure that it accounts for the lion’s share of domestic production.

“Before the revolution, all our work was to the service of the regime to serve its aims, but things are different now,” said Haitham Haj Ali, vice-president of GEBO. “The existence of private publishers has created competition and made us better.” Sitting in the organization’s tumbledown, cigarette-smoke-filled quarters along the Nile, Ali points to the recent publication of The Terrorist, a history of jihadists across the Middle East, as evidence of their newfound freedom.

A man browses a stall at Cairo's Ezbekiya book market
Browsing books at Ezbekiya.
Image: Mahmoud Eliraqi

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the reality is a little less revolutionary. Most state-run bookstores continue to stock unchallenging material, some of which—including a glowing tribute to Suzanne Mubarak, the ex-president’s wife—harks back to GEBO’s previous role as a propaganda organ. They and their independent competitors also appear to have taken their cues from above in removing all Qatari publications from their shelves, after Egyptian officials took issue with the Gulf emirate’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

It’s an uncertain environment for authors and publishers alike, and Aboul Naga says this has left people uncertain of their boundaries. “In principle you can write anything, and publish anything, but then it depends on your good luck and bad luck.”

All the same, book sales have picked up substantially. GEBO’s takings were up 80% from 2014 at this year’s Cairo book fair; small publishers report an expanding and diversifying readership as the economy shows signs of a recovery. And Aboul Naga remains cautiously optimistic that the book industry will fight to retain its relative freedom. “Perhaps this was the last resort for a whole generation whose consciousness was formed in the squares,” she said.

Photos by Mahmoud Eliraqi. Follow Mahmoud on Flickr.