The Mechanics of Censorship in Egypt

This month’s Egypt Today carries an interesting but ultimately disappointing piece about censorship.

An image from Magdy Shafee's censored Metro.

The article focuses on film and book censorship, and notably tiptoes around a discussion of magazine censorship. One might take from the article that magazines, such as Egypt Today, are well nigh never censored.


Briefly, I will tell a story about a Cairo magazine. (Fictional, you know, in the way that Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi is fiction.) A reporter brings a piece about sexual harassment in Egypt to her editor. The editor gives this article a good look, and then calls up her contact in the government. “This would probably be censored, right?” Yup, the censor agrees. It would probably be censored.

So that piece goes in the trash. Kerflooie.

About books, I have another (fictional) anecdote. A woman who is self-publishing a language textbook tells an American acquaintance about her troubles getting her book through various government hoops: censorship, bribery, stamps here and there. What was excised from her book? There was a sentence about Chicago’s weather being poor; this was seen as too anti-American.

Yes: too anti-American.

When the (fictional) American wanted to interview the author about this process, the author said she couldn’t speak about it any more. After all, why did the (fictional) American want to know? To report on this to a Western audience, so Westerners could be titillated?

But back to the (nonfiction) ET piece, which quotes Mostafa Faramawy, the head of procurement for the governmental Dar el-Kotob. He says books are rarely censored (or outright banned, anyway) before they hit the stores:

“Books in Egypt are given a deposit number from Dar El-Kotob, and then they are available at bookstores,” says Faramawy. “Books are almost never banned before being available at bookstores. They are sold, then when controversies arise, the books get banned until [the government decides what to do about them].”

There are, yes, many instances of this after-the-fact censorship. Some of the most high-profile yankings have happened at the Cairo Book Fair: Magdy al Shafee’s graphic novel Metro, and, this year, Idris Ali’s The Leader Is Cutting His Hair.

The ET piece mentions writers like Yusuf Idris and Naguib Mahfouz (both deceased), who were censored quite a while back. All in all, while it’s a great subject to tackle, this article tries to put a smiley face on government censorship:

Faramawy says that Egypt is somewhat flexible with books compared to the rest of the region. Some titles are allowed here that are outlawed in some of the Gulf countries, for instance. “We usually do not have a lot of books banned, but the government told us not to sell books by the Moroccan author Mohamed Shoukry,” he says.

However, banning is hardly the whole picture. As literary critic Rasheed el Anaany noted in an interview with Al Masry Al Youm, the government is just one element of Egypt’s censorious picture.

“I wish that government censorship would come back and social censorship would go away. The latter is much more ferocious, much more unpredictable and potentially much more violent then the measured censorship of the state.”

He adds: “Of course, I don’t want any censorship.”

Unrelated, but interesting: Novelist Alaa El Aswany wants you to go to the airport to welcome (possible presidential candidate) Mohamed ElBaradei home.