CAIRO: Egypt’s annual international book extravaganza, the Cairo International Book Fair, always comes with its fair share of sexy controversies that make great headlines.
I recall in 2003 when several high-profile authors and intellectuals boycotted the 2003 Cairo International Book Fair when Azhar scholars mounted a campaign against three novels published by a State-run institution (“Before and After by Tawfiq Abdel Rahman, “Children of a Romantic Error by Yasser Shaaban and “Forbidden Dreams by Mahmoud Hamed), protesting the Culture Ministry’s passivity in allowing the books to be banned.
As recently as the 2007 installment of the largest fair of its kind in the region, attracting an average 7 million visitors annually, Lebanese publisher Dar Al-Adab discovered that boxes containing works by Milan Kundera, Nikos Kazantzakis and noted Egyptian authors like Nawal Al-Saadawi and Edward Al-Kharrat were missing.
The censor had banned them without giving official notification or an explanation for why they weren’t allowed.
It’s common knowledge, however, that subject matters involving sex, controversial politics and attacks on religion set off alarms among the censors, which brings us to the 2009 incident taking pride of place this time round (and I say this with a mixture of shame and shock): the arrest of two Christian men for distributing Bibles to book fair visitors earlier this week.
According to their lawyer Naguib Gobrael, also head of the Egyptian Union for Human Rights Organizations (EUHRO), Mina Adel Shawky and Essam Kedees Nassif from Dayrout, in the Upper Egypt governorate of Assiut were arrested by state security police but released on Thursday after being charged with “defaming Islam.
But this was not the initial charge. The two men were first accused of preaching, which is not a crime according the Egyptian law. Apparently, the two men were also denied access to an attorney during their few days in detention and during their interrogation.
As the story made the rounds through the Cotpic blogosphere grapevine, some suggested that the men weren’t only handing out Bibles, but were distributing CDs by ex-communicated priest Zachariah Boutros, who was removed from his position at the Coptic Orthodox Church because of his constant attacks on Islam via his satellite TV show, which infuriated both Muslims and Christians.
Other blog sources denied the CD allegations, though the denials were not made directly by the accused who were “advised by state security not to give any media statements for the time being.
For all intents and purposes, I shall ignore the CD issue altogether because I have no doubt in my mind that the men would have been arrested simply for giving out Bibles.
What message does such an arrest convey to both Muslims and Christians in this country? And if these two men were Muslims distributing free copies of the Quran, would they have been detained and questioned?
It’s hard to look at this incident outside the context of the discourse on citizenship rights that reached its climax in 2007 with the constitutional amendments. Officially, the Egyptian state unequivocally emphasizes equality before the law, respect for civil rights and the principle of lack of religious, ethnic or gender discrimination among citizens.
Below the surface, however, state security regards missionary work or evangelization as a serious security issue to which it dedicates a special monitoring unit which in itself is enough to fuel religion-based discriminatory attitudes in all areas of the social sphere, whether in the workplace, or in government institutions.
Besides, why should distributing Bibles be seen as missionary work in the first place? Apart from the fact that Bibles are available for sale everywhere as it is, including in the Book Fair, since when was handing someone a book a de facto attempt to “tamper with their brain or shake their faith in another belief system? And if it does, then wouldn’t this be evidence of a shaky faith to begin with?
Instead of appointing itself the guardian of faith under the cloak of being the keepers of religious harmony, the state would have done better to set an example for being the champion of justice for all no matter what belief system they follow.
There is no security threat worse than the feeling of indignation which permeates the hearts and minds of the mostly disenfranchised Egyptian youth who have little to look forward to in Egypt’s complex web of nepotism where finding the simplest of jobs is a distant dream, especially in light of the current economic downturn.
I truly hope this Bible incident ends now because such practices are the real reasons behind the sectarian clashes that flare up every once in a while in Egypt.
The state needs to stop shooting itself in the foot with double-speak and double standards.
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.