Metro, the first graphic novel in Arabic, has become the latest cause of a loud Egyptian clamour. The cartoonist, Magdy el-Shafee, accused of violating public morality, is to appear Saturday before the Court. His novel, a bile in the mouths of Egyptian authorities, is a combination of raw dialogue and erotic images. Hosni Mubarak’s iron fist government has increased its attacks on the freedom of expression in Egypt.
For the umpteenth time Freedom of expression in Egypt has been put to the test. Magdy el-Shafee, cartooninst of Metro, the first graphic novel in the Arabic language for adults, appears Saturday before an Egyptian court for offending “public morality”. The alleged crimes have been enumerated as: insults, sexual dialogues, violence and erotic images (i.e., a couple making love under a blanket)… Nothing particularly irreverent. “What I find disturbing is not the novel per se, but its accessibility,” says the Dubai daily newspaper, The National. “Everyone can read and understand it… even the disillusioned Egyptian youth can identify with the protagonist” it continues. Written in street language, the novel tells the story of Shihab, a computer scientist who finds himself in a “modern Cairo, affected by financial and social insecurities” and who decides to hold up a bank to settle his debts to corrupt officials.
It does not come as a surprise that the Egyptian authorities have shown contempt towards the cartoon characters. April 6, 2008, the offices of Dar el-Malamaeh, publishers of Metro in Cairo, were looted by the police. All copies of the book, belonging to Magdy el-Shafee, were confiscated. Bookshops were warned to remove the novel from their shelves and their inventory. The cartoonist and his publisher, Mohammed Al-Sharqawi, were arrested for violating public morality.
The “Hesb” phenomenon
The controversy began last spring when Derbashy al-Saleh, an Egyptian lawyer, filed a lawsuit against Mr. el-Shafee. “The novel makes mention of homosexuality. In addition, the authors accuse the police indicating that they do not respect the rights of the population. Metro is advocating for anarchy”, he told The National newspaper. This is not Saleh al Derbashy’s first. He is reportedly behind a prison sentence issued in June 2006 to two journalists, including the editor in chief of Al-Dustour, for insulting the President and spreading false rumours. For Gamal Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights, Mr. al-Derbashy is a “Hesb”, a Sharia term that requires the faithful “to impose what is right and forbid what is evil” in their community.
A blow to freedom of expression
According to the Egyptian Menassat website, the publisher was involved in other activities during this period. Dar el-Malamaeh was managed by former political activist and blogger Muhammad al-Sharqawi, arrested and removed in May 2006 for publishing the Egyptian opposition’s protests on the internet as well as calling for a general strike on April 6, 2008, the day of his arrest.
Although Egypt is signatory to an international agreement on civil and political rights, which guarantees everyone the right to freedom of expression, such cases remain very common in the country. Last week, the court annulled the license of a literary magazine for having published a poem by Helmy Salem entitled “Laila Mourad’s balcony” (Laila Mourad is a renowned Egyptian star of 1940’s). Surprisingly, the poem was published two years ago.
April 6, a demonstration against Hosni Mubarak’s regime was launched on Facebook by a group of young activists known as “the movement of 6 April,” created in 2008. Al-Sharqawi was part of that group. The group called for a re-evaluation of the minimum monthly wage and a democratic overhaul of the country’s constitution. Thirty-two people, including a young blogger, were arrested in one week for supporting the call to strike.
In recent years, fatwas and unfair trials have become the bedrock of the Egyptian government’s multiplied crackdown against journalists. According to a 2008 world ranking list released by Reporters Without Borders, Egypt holds the 146th place, behind Tunisia (143), Morocco (122), Algeria (121).