The birth of a new theocracy?

Following the Arabellion, controversial pluralistic debates on questions of morality or religion were no longer taboo in Egypt. But such discursive freedom has proved short-lived; the tide has turned. These days, the tone adopted by Egypt's regime is more highly charged with religious rhetoric than ever and the goal is clear: to wrest back control of social discourse. Meanwhile Egypt's justice system is playing along and restricting freedom of expression. Sofian Philip Naceur reports from Cairo

By Sofian Philip Naceur

Liberal Egypt has been turned on its head. The sentencing of the Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji to two years in prison for the publication of "sexually shameless literature" has triggered an outcry of indignation among artists, intellectuals and human rights activists in the country. Public prosecutors in the Cairo district of Bulaq ruled that the printing of a chapter of Naji's novel Istikhdam Al-Haya (The Guide for Using Life) in the literary magazine Akhbar Al-Adab in August 2014 violated public modesty. The writer had initially been acquitted, but an appeal court in Bulaq then gave Naji the maximum possible sentence on 20 February 2016.

Following a turbulent hearing, Naji was arrested in the courtroom and is now detained at the high security Tora jail in southern Cairo. The trial was chaotic, reports attorney Yasmin Hossam Al-Din, who is advising Naji's defence team.

The public prosecutor continually interrupted Naji's lawyers, she says, not making any distinction in his own plea between a fictional character in the novel and the writer himself. Naji's defence plans to appeal and has applied for a provisional release from detention. Thus far with no success.

Meanwhile, artists and intellectuals in Egypt are afraid for nothing less than the freedom of expression and artistic freedom at home. Several Egyptian writers have announced plans to stage a public burning of their literary work – as a protest against the restrictions that threaten freedom of expression. After all, Naji's case is no exception.

In January 2016, the poet Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison for contempt of Islam, because she had criticised the slaughter of animals at the Islamic Eid, or Feast of the Sacrifice, on Facebook. The human rights organisation the Arab Network for Human Rights Information issued a statement that even went as far as comparing the verdict with the Inquisition.

Egyptian author Ahmed Naji (photo: private)
Hysterical outcry over "sexually shameless literature": Public prosecutors in the Cairo district of Bulaq ruled that the printing of a chapter of Naji's novel Istikhdam Al-Haya (The Guide for Using Life) in the literary magazine Akhbar Al-Adab in August 2014 violated public modesty and promoted extramarital affairs

But Egypt's judiciary is not only on the march against writers and artists, it is also grasping at interpretational jurisdiction in religious matters. Following the sensational sentencing of the TV preacher Islam Behery for contempt of religion, in February a youth court in Minya imposed jail terms on four young Copts for mocking Islamic prayer rituals. A spate of similar cases last year is being viewed with consternation in liberal circles in Egypt.

State-imposed moral policy

The huge pressure on norm and value systems is meanwhile not only being raised on a judicial level, but is also impacting upon civil society and even professional associations. A concert given by several metal bands in Cairo in February ended up in as a public slanging match between organisers and the chairman of the musicians' syndicate Hany Shaker, who described the bands that were performing as devil worshippers and accused them of fomenting "chaos and immorality" among Egypt's youth.

Egyptian media report that the police even tried to prevent the concert from taking place, but that they only arrived at the concert venue after the event had finished. The syndicate had already caused a stir in October 2015 when, in a controversially debated decision, it required female musicians to wear unrevealing clothing during performances.

This increasingly normative climate on the Nile is meanwhile also an expression of the attempt on the part of the ruling regime to win back control over interpretational jurisdiction in questions of religion and social value systems.

The Egyptian columnist Ibrahim Eissa (photo: arab TV still)
Prominent columnist Ibrahim Eissa recently described al-Sisi′s presidency as a "theocracy". It differs little from the aura of extreme conservatism associated with former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, who was toppled by a violent coup in 2014. "Your state is a theocracy, despite the fact that you constantly talk about a modern, civil state!"

In this context, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has several times called for a religious renewal, thereby assigning sole authorisation for such a reform to the scholars at the Al Azhar Mosque and consistently rejecting individual initiatives or opinions.

But al-Sisi's religious rhetoric and his espousal of a tightly hierarchical approach in matters of moral and religious interpretation has been met with sharp criticism. Writing in the daily newspaper Al-Maqdal, the prominent columnist Ibrahim Eissa only recently described Al-Sisi's regency as a "theocracy". There was little to distinguish it from the staunchly conservative climate under the government of Islamic ex-President Mohammed Morsi, toppled in a violent coup in 2013, he wrote. "Your state is a theocracy, although you perpetually talk of a modern, civil state," Eissa continued, aiming his comments at the Egyptian head of state himself.

Moral and religious discourse as means to an end

"The al-Sisi regime toppled and replaced the Muslim Brotherhood and must now prove to the public that they are also good Muslims," says a young theatre actor who wants to remain anonymous. On the other hand, this Islamically-charged political rhetoric is much more in line with the beliefs of the majority population, first and foremost in more traditional rural regions. The Naji verdict is therefore only rejected and scandalised by a small minority, she emphasises.

Mamdouh Habashi (photo: Sofian Philip Naceur)
"The regime is trying to consistently restrict the opening of the public sphere that resulted from the 2011 rebellion, to close it up again and ensure that it stays that way," says left-wing politician Mamdouh Habashi

The property developer and left wing politician with the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, Mamdouh Habashi also takes a very dim view of Al-Sisi's ultra-conservative swagger into the courtroom, but perceives the president's moral and religious rhetoric less as an attempt by the regime to serve the typical Brotherhood clientele, and much more as a targeted attack on the public sphere. "The regime is trying to consistently restrict the opening of the public sphere that resulted from the 2011 rebellion, to close it up again and ensure that it stays that way," says Habashi.

This is not only impacting upon artistic and social freedoms, but also political ones, he adds. "Following the 2013 counter-revolution, the regime must again bring the popular masses under control, as mobilised masses can be dangerous for the preservation of the prevailing order. That is why the secularisation of the state, a process that began in the 19th century, is not just being discontinued, but actively torpedoed," says Habashi.

An important example of this is expenditure to reduce the illiteracy rate, which is still more than 40 percent, he says. After all, masses that are not well educated are easier to deal with than people who ask questions.

In consideration of this, says Habashi, it is hardly surprising that the regime has even reduced its spending on Egypt's chronically under-financed education sector in recent years. "In doing so, the regime is flouting the constitution of 2014, which sets out explicit guidelines for education spending." This is evidence of a consistent and continual effort to hinder the secularisation of state and society.

Sofian Philip Naceur

© 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon