Ahmed Naji
RNW Media

Ahmed Naji to appear in court for ‘hurting public morals’

Egyptian writer and journalist Ahmed Naji is to appear in court on 14 November charged with publishing sexually explicit material and violating public morals. The lawsuit goes against the principle of freedom of expression as enshrined in the Egyptian constitution, says Naji in an interview with RNW Media.

Ahmed Naji is not known for mincing his words. He strongly believes in the freedom to speak his mind, a freedom which he happily exercises in his newspaper columns and critical blog posts on several media, including RNW Media’s Love Matters Arabic. These posts touch on sensitive subjects and contain graphic examples of traditional attitudes towards sex or plain macho behaviour, which, he says, spoil the fun in the bedroom.

Guide for Using Life
Naji has been similarly open in his literary works. A chapter of his latest novel, The Guide for Using Life, was republished in a literary magazine in August 2014. The explicit sex acts and references to habitual cannabis use by the characters upset at least one reader to such an extent that he claimed it made him severely ill. So this upset reader filed a police report.

The prosecutor picked up the case and contacted both Naji and the magazine editor as part of  a formal investigation. Its main finding: the item “hurt public morals” and only served to “spread a culture of sex in Egyptian society”. Naji was informed at the weekend. He says the news came as shock as he and his lawyer “were under the impression that the prosecutor had closed the case.”

Naji has been summoned to a preliminary hearing on 14 November at which the judge will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to force him to stand trial. If found guilty, this ‘misdemeanour’ could land him in jail for up to two years and result in a fine of up to 10,000 Egyptian pounds (1000 euros).


"The prosecution doesn’t seem to care about any legislation protecting freedom of expression"


Guardian of morals
Naji feels the odds are against him. The key problem is that the public prosecutor in Egypt sees itself as the guardian of national tradition and morals, he says.

“It’s one of the main state institutions that has a negative attitude towards freedom of speech and freedom of creativity. If someone files a case against artists, actors, journalists or writers, the prosecutors always move it to the court. This goes against our constitution which guarantees those basic freedoms. But the prosecution doesn’t seem to care about any legislation protecting freedom of expression.”

Precedents
  

The Egyptian authorities allow a considerable degree of free speech, says Naji. Cases such as his are rare, but not unprecedented.

Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz also went to court over his book 'Awlad Haretna' (Children of the Alley) which was deemed heretical.

In 2009, the Egyptian poet Helmi Salem was taken to court for a controversial poem published in Ibdaa magazine. The poem was seen as religiously offensive and the case led to the withdrawal of the magazine’s publication license.

Also in 2009, Magdi El Shafai saw his novel Metro, the first Arabic graphic novel, confiscated. He was fined for a similar offence as Naji’s been accused of: drawing and publishing pornographic scenes.

 

Naji says the prosecution refused to accept his lawyer’s argument that the magazine item was taken from a work of fiction. “He saw it as an article and an opinion piece, instead of an excerpt from a novel, and even treated one of the fictional characters in the novel as a real person. The prosecutor said ‘if this is fiction, then he is lying because the article has his name on it.’ It became very surreal, Kafka-esque.”

Solidarity
“Another problem is that Egyptian law gives all power to the prosecution and the judge. It doesn’t allow an expert opinion, for example,” Naji adds. Nonetheless, he remains hopeful that the court will dismiss the case.

“We have received huge support, from the public, from the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, from the Writers’ Union of Egypt. They have expressed their solidarity as well as several NGOs. A few days before the court hearing, the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate will hold a conference about the situation journalists are in now, the threats they are facing. We hope that this will have some impact on the judge’s decision, that it will convince them that this is not pornography, but literature, a form of art."

Naji says he is still in a state of shock. As a writer or journalist in Egypt, you’re constantly under threat. There is a security guard outside my office, because all the newspapers in Egypt are potential terrorist targets. Two months ago, a bomb went off right next to my office. I know I can also face harassment from police. But I never imagined that I would be threatened because of my novels. I oppose the current regime and I’ve written many critical articles, so I always thought that if anything ever happened to me, it would be because of my newspaper articles, not my novels. I’m still trying to understand this.”

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