Battlefield of censorship




The industry is at the forefront of struggles over cultural values and political control

By Mark Huband in Cairo

Financial Times, 9 May 2000

The challenge to Egypt’s publishing industry is multifold. It is guardian to some of the foremost authors in the Arabic language. It is also the industry most exposed to battles over cultural values and political control.

According to official statistics, Egypt’s300 publishers produce 11,000-13,000 new titles annually, including those published for schools and universities. Ninety-five per cent of these titles are produced by a mere 30 publishing houses, which receive the lion’s share of the profits from what is a E£1.5bn industry. Of these sales, 5,000 are accounted for by educational books. Of this 25 per cent are exported, the main markets being the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. Iraq had for a century been a big importer of Egyptian books, but this stopped in 1991 with the Gulf war, and has yet to recover. Similarly, Sudan was an important market, but now imports a trickle of Egypt’s output. Indonesia and Malaysia are also established importers of Arabic works.

The main focus of the industry is the annual Cairo Book Fair, with more than 500,000 people visiting it. Companies from across the region achieve up to 20 per cent of annual sales during the two week event.

“Even so, we have a problem in promoting and selling. We don’t have enough outlets, and we are still sticking to the old channels for distribution,” says Ibrahim el Moallem, chairman of Shorouk Press, a leading Cairo publisher, and chairman of the Arab Publishers’ Association. “The number of people and students is increasing, but the number of titles and books widely available is small. We have not applied modern techniques of managing and marketing.”

Two shifts within the industry are regarded as vital to Shorouk’s future success. The first is the decision by the government to open educational publishing to private sector companies. Shorouk hopes to secure 10 per cent of the educational publishing market, allowing it to add 100 titles to its list, of which 30 per cent is already dominated by childrens’ books.

“But there are problems: we don’t have enough libraries, and the existing libraries don’t have (a big) enough budget,” says Mr el Moallam.

The second element in Shorouk’s strategy has been its decision to take a stake in the Arab Company for Arts and Publishing, known as Fonoun. The company has been created by a group of financiers led by EFG Hermes, a Cairo investment bank. The company intends to buy the rights to Arabic films, music and literature with the aim of streamlining their distribution and broadening access.

The company has been wracked by internal disputes among senior managers since its foundation in 2000, and also subject to accusations that Egypt’scultural patrimony was being bought up by foreigners.

These and similar accusations have dogged publishing for decades.

“In a lot of Arab countries they are suffering from a lot of narrow-minded censorship, and not only that: a narrow-minded society. In Egypt there is no censorship of books that are published in Egypt. There’s censorship of the books that are bought from abroad,” says Ibrahim el Moallam.

“There has been a 10-fold increase in the number of books requested for scrutiny by the censor,” says another leading publisher. “Following the controversy over Rodinson, they banned 100 books,” he says, referring to a biography of the Prophet Mohammed by French academic Maxim Rodinson, which was banned from the coursework and the library of the American University in Cairo (AUC), after a reactionary journalist wrote that it was blasphemous.

More recently, in November 1999, a department of Egypt’s Ministry of Culture printed an Egyptian edition of ‘Walima Li Aashaab al Bahr’ or ‘The Feast of Seaweed’ by a Syrian novelist, Haydar Haydar.

In February 2000, the Islamist newspaper al-Shaab denounced the book as offensive to Islam and condemned the government’s sponsorship of its publication. One thousand intellectuals then signed a document defending the novel, and the Ministry of Culture issued contradictory statements about whether or not it had banned the book. Leading the critics were religious conservatives from Al-Azhar, Egypt and the Islamic world’s oldest university and a centre of Islamic law.

“This is an old battle, not a new one,” says Hisham Qishta, a poet and editor-in-chief of an independent cultural magazine, Al Kitaaba Al Ukhra, told a Cairo newspaper. “It’s a battle between conservative society that has always had fascist leanings, and the intellectuals who are rebellious by nature and always seeking change.”

The ‘Feast of Seaweed’ is no longer available in Egypt, and the line publishers must tread remains all the more delicate. Meanwhile, the government is in a difficult position. It knows Islamist books top Egypt’s best seller list. To ban them would be controversial if not impossible.


© Financial Times