CAIRO—Egypt’s cultural scene has witnessed a series of government actions in recent years that have raised concerns about the future of the publishing industry and freedom of expression in the country. Those actions include decisions to close some cultural institutions and bookstores, the confiscation of books and assets, and the arrests of some writers and publishers.
“Egypt’s culture-production environment has become politically costly, and the threat of imprisonment and possible closure has made the political dimension a key element in publishers’ decisions about whether to contract any writer,” said Fady Awad, a former publishing director at Dar el-Shorouk, one of Egypt’s largest publishing houses.
In February, a court upheld a five-year prison term previously imposed on Khaled Lutfi, the founder of Tanmia Publishing House. Lutfi was accused of disclosing military secrets for distributing the Arabic version of a politically sensitive book about Ashraf Marwan, who is said to have spied for Israel in the years leading up to the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. (Marwan was a son-in-law of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Egypt has long denied that he was a spy.) The book, by Israeli author Uri Bar-Joseph, was published in English as The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel.
Lutfi founded his bookstore six years ago in the center of the Egyptian capital and it became well-known, in part, for providing low-priced Egyptian editions of books published elsewhere in the Arab world.
Lutfi’s case is not the only one. Late in September, the security services raided and closed Al-Balad Bookstore on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo, near Tahrir Square. The pretext for closing the bookstore was the claim that it had no license, but some critics suspect the decision was politically motivated. The store’s owner, Farid Zahran, is president of the opposition Egyptian Social Democratic Party.
In earlier actions, the government seized the assets of the Alef bookstore chain in August 2017. The chain’s owner is alleged to be a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. A government committee charged with confiscating the assets of the banned Islamist group appointed a state-run investment company to monitor the chain’s administrative and financial affairs.
And in December 2016, the security forces closed several branches of Al-Karama community library in Cairo. The libraries were founded by the human rights activist Gamal Eid but had no affiliation with any political party, he told a local news outlet at the time.
Eid is head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).