25 February 2016

Egypt Artists Call for Freedom After Novelist Is Jailed

Photo: Al Jazeera
Ahmed Naji.

Egyptian writers, artists and filmmakers have launched a public campaign for greater freedom of creativity and expression following the jailing of a novelist on charges of violating "public modesty" through his writing.

Author Ahmed Naji, accused of publishing a book with references to sex and drugs, was sentenced to two years in prison on Saturday.

The solidarity campaign was launched on Thursday with a series of video messages from intellectuals in support of creative freedom.

In the first campaign video, well-known Egyptian scriptwriter Medhat El Adl expressed concern for the future of art in Egypt, saying the sentence against Naji came as an "extreme shock" to writers and artists.

"If this is how it is, my published novels contain things that would put me in prison too," said best-selling author Alaa al-Aswany, adding that he has signed petitions, along with others from the field, requesting Naji to be freed.

Naji's detention followed recent sentences handed to the TV presenter and researcher Islam Behery, who is serving a year-long prison sentence for "defaming religious symbols" and the writer Fatma Naoot, who has appealed a three-year sentence for "defaming Islam".

Free speech crackdown

The growing movement by Egyptian intellectuals protesting the cases also includes Culture Minister Helmy el-Namnam, as well as two former culture ministers and the Egyptian Publishers Association.

Former Google executive Wael Ghonim, who helped ignite Egypt's 2011 uprising, also criticised the verdict against Naji.

Rights lawyers and activists say cases filed by the public prosecution against writers and thinkers for issues related to "virtue" or religion have spiked under the rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

As an army chief, Sisi led the popular overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 amid mass protests against his rule.

Egyptian artists and writers were among Morsi's most outspoken critics.

"Those who were in your place before you have withered away because of similar actions, and the same way of thinking," prominent TV host Youssef el-Hosseiny said in his show earlier this month, an implicit warning that Sisi cannot afford to alienate Egypt's artists and intellectuals.

Culture Minister Helmy El-Namnam attended a conference on Thursday supporting Naji, the third conference held to discuss the novelist's sentence in as many days.

Naji was initially acquitted but after the case garnered widespread media coverage prosecutors appealed the verdict, and in the latest ruling he received the maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

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