Under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt has experienced a steep increase in censorship policies from the national government. With a faltering approval rating and an election coming up in 2018, Sisi is trying to ensure his success in the election by suppressing the opposition to guarantee that he runs unopposed. Unfortunately, one of the Sisi administration’s main targets is libraries, some of which have been raided and shut down because they were considered to be “seditious spaces,” according to a report from The Atlantic. Sisi’s attack on libraries is detrimental to both education and democracy in Egypt and must not be permitted.
The libraries that have been shut down were founded by Gamal Eid, a prominent human rights lawyer in Cairo. The Al-Karama library and three of its branches were raided by Egyptian security forces, who confiscated many of the libraries’ books, some of which still have not been recovered. Without these libraries, Cairo has lost not only a source of knowledge but a safe space for children to escape their nearby impoverished neighborhoods.
Despite Sisi’s claim that Egypt has “completed a transition to democratic rule” in 2016, according to an Al Jazeera report, the censorship of books and libraries is traditionally an early sign of a crumbling democracy. Egypt cannot hope to achieve free speech if it cannot first attain freedom of the press, and these two principles are vital to a functioning democracy.
Even beyond these libraries, the Sisi administration has blocked hundreds of websites, limiting Egyptians’ access to free information. Several publishing houses and bookshops, such as the Dar Merit Publishing House in Cairo, have been raided and shut down for selling left-leaning books or for having alleged associations with the Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore, a political activist was sentenced to five years in prison for owning a copy of Karl Marx’s Value, Price and Profit, and a novelist was imprisoned for one year for “offending public modesty” with his novel’s sexually-related themes and vocabulary.
The state government even has its own publishing house, the General Egyptian Book Organization, which requires that books must not lead to militant ideas or be “responsible for the decaying civilization moment that we are living in Egypt,” said Soheir Almasadfa, the chairwoman of cultural and publishing projects for the state. All of these restrictions, combined with the threat of serving a prison sentence, will certainly discourage many novelists from attempting to get their books published. Therefore, these policies limit the spreading of new ideas, which makes it much easier to maintain order within a state but only at the expense of democratic ideals.
According to Khaled Fahmy, a historian of the Middle East at Cambridge University, the criminalization of a harmless act like reading is “an alarmist moment of crisis” for Egypt. The fact that the government has succeeded in promoting united ideas over freedom of thought should concern both Egyptians and people around the globe, since these are telltale signs that Egypt is moving further and further away from democracy. The good news, according to Fahmy, is that while readership cannot increase due to the censorship that is in place, the reading public has deepened. Those who do have access to books are engaging with them more, possibly because they can appreciate how fortunate they are to have access to these texts.
To counter the censorship and democratic failures of the government, readership must increase. Local libraries and book stores, as well as average citizens, must work against censorship to promote the importance of learning, free press and free thought. They must find ways to increase readership, despite the fact that books continue to be taken from their grasp. After all, it is imperative that these institutions continue to provide ways for local citizens to become educated, because only education and shared ideas can counter Sisi’s suppression and give Egypt any hope for democracy.
Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.