The case against novelist Ahmed Naji and Tarek al-Taher, editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Adab, will go to court on November 14, Naji’s lawyer confirmed to Mada Masr on Tuesday.
They will be tried according to Law 178, which penalizes an artist, publisher or distributor of content that defames public morals with up to two years in prison and a fine of between LE5,000 and LE10,000, lawyer Mahmoud Othman, of the Association for Free Thought and Expression (AFTE), added.
Taher will be tried according to Law 200 A-2, which relates to not fullfilling his duties as an editor-in-chief, Othman said.
Othman told Mada Masr that the case was filed on August 13, 2014, with regard to the Akhbar al-Adab issue published on August 3, 2014, which ran the novel’s sixth chapter. It was filed by two lawyers, Hany Saleh Tawfik and Ibrahim Mohamed Hassan.
The prosecution, represented by Yasser Rabei, has already sent the complaint to the appeals court, which confirmed on October 25 that the case falls under law number 59, Article 187, for the year 1937 on defaming public morals.
The Use of Life, an experimental illustrated novel Naji created in colloquial and standard Arabic, in collaboration with comic and storyboard artist Ayman al-Zorkany, was published in Lebanon by Dar al-Tanweer and has been distributed by the same company in Cairo for the past year. As with any foreign printed book, it was approved by the Publications Censorship Authority before its first shipment entered Egypt through the ports.
Chapter 6, which has also been published online, includes several taboo subjects, such as detailed sexual encounters and house parties that include drugs and alcohol.
Othman says a similar case was brought against graphic novelist Magdy El Shafei for his 2008 novel Metro, which resulted in a fine but not imprisonment.
“There is a culture that gives the right to citizens to take artists to court and the law supports this. There are several such cases in court now,” said Othman. “This kills creativity and doesn’t protect the artist, who is by default supposed to go outside of socially constructed lines and even break boundaries.”
Case 1954 for 2015 in Boulaq Abu al-Ela accuses Naji and Taher of publishing explicit sexual content. Taher is also accused of not meeting his responsibilities as editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Adab, a printed weekly literary newspaper published by state-owned Akhbar al-Youm. Taher told the prosecution that he did not read the chapter in question.
Naji is a regular culture journalist for Akhbar al-Adab and a member of the Journalists Syndicate. He has also contributed to Mada Masr on a freelance basis.
Naji asserted in a Facebook statement on Sunday that the text is a work of fiction and should be treated as such. He wrote that the prosecution and the plaintiff are treating it as an article and not a fictional novel.
The Use of Life was released alongside an exhibition by Zorkany at Cairo’s Medrar for Contemporary Art in November 2014. Zorkany has also produced a short animation film based on a different chapter of the book, in collaboration with Amr Wohashy, which was recently screened at both the Cairo Comix Festival and last week’s animation festival at Cairo’s French Cultural Center.
Othman says that AFTE, which has been researching cases of prosecuted artists, as well as representing them, has seen freedom of expression come increasingly under threat since 2013. While the constitution and Egypt’s ratification of various international treaties protects freedom of expression from prosecution, Egypt’s laws are not reflective of this.
The public morality defamation law in particular is very broad and allows for any interpretation, Othman says.
In February 2015, 400 copies of graffiti documentation book Walls of Freedom were confiscated at the Customs Authority in Alexandria, despite the censorship body’s approval and the fact that it had been on the market for a year.
The book’s publishers, Berlin-based From Here to Fame, and its distributor — also the Cairo, Beirut and Tunis based Dar al-Tanweer — say that the copies are still held up, in spite of their payment of all the overdue charges, which was suspected to be the reason for the delay at the start.