Censors in Tunisia and Egypt Have ‘Important Role to Play’?

The Censors' Office does important stuff, like make sure this book doesn't re-enter the country.

It initially seemed as though Tunisia would be quick to cancel most literary censorship after the ouster of Zein El Abideen Ben Ali. But, following the interim government’s passage of a new censorship law, censors are “making a comeback.” They’ve begun by banning a number of websites, according to Global Voices Online.

Meanwhile, Egyptians came out in force yesterday to protect their right to free speech online, with a #noSCAF day of criticizing the Armed Forces. However, despite this day’s apparent success, relatively little has been said about the continued role of the Egyptian Censors’ Office in limiting literature.

The censors’ office officially doesn’t “ban literature,” as they are quick to state. However, they do continue to control imported books. Even Ibrahim Farghali’s acclaimed Sons of Gabalawy, which was printed in Egypt, has been prevented from re-entering the country. And several other avenues of censorship are also available.

Our friend Ali Abdel Mohsen reports on the censorship schizophrenia in today’s Al Masry Al Youm. While head of the Egyptian Board of Censors Sayed Khattab believes “we are living in the age of freedom,” he adds that “nobody can reasonably say we should just cancel the whole institution” of censorship.

Abdel Mohsen says that Khattab is quick to condemn the existing censorship laws. But the changes Khattab proposes don’t challenge the core of these laws. Khattab reportedly insists that censors have an important role in Egypt, which includes:

giving advice and knowledge to the public, and facilitating and encouraging ongoing dialogue between the public and the artists within a framework that does not offend any sensibilities.


Officially, Egyptian authorities don’t censor books that are published within Egypt; they only control titles that are imported from abroad. Internal censorship laws still apply to theater and films scrips. However, those that concern books were lifted years ago.

However, august and award-winning Egyptian author Salwa Bakr told Abdel Mohsen, “that didn’t mean they stopped censoring, they just did it in different ways.”

Since distribution is monopolized by two government-owned agencies, they would distribute only a tiny fraction of the total printed copies of books deemed to be potentially troublesome, making them available in obscure selling points, while storing the other copies and claiming that “they just didn’t sell,” Bakr says.

Also, books can be censored after publication—yanked from shelves and their authors and publishers fined—as with Magdy al-Shafee’s graphic novel, Metro.

Indeed, censorship can take part at any place in the process:  Khaled al-Berry’s Negative, for instance, was nearly censored by a man in the printing workshop who refused to work with the book because of its “obscene” sex scene. Fortunately, 20LE was enough to change the gentleman’s mind.

Many have said that it’s “too soon” to talk about dismantling censorship processes because of conservative Egyptian audiences. But Bakr told Abdel Mohsen that dismantling the office would provide “a shock that would benefit society, forcing people to reevaluate the role of censorship as well as topics that are supposedly taboo.”

Bakr told Abdel Mohsen:

We’ve lost so much because of censorship. Culturally, we’ve taken huge steps back.

Read more:

Anti-censorship movement in Tunisia: creativity, courage and hope!


  1. hehe, i remember the “giving advice” bit. it involved scissors 😉
    i actually find the possibility of any old/young man/woman censoring stuff they object to, as was apparently the case with al-berry’s novel, far scarrier than any kind of official censorship.

  2. I agree, although I think the old/young/man/woman takes heart and inspiration from government censors. Rolling back censorship should begin with the part that’s easiest to (un) legislate and proceed from there… Or so we hope, in any case.

  3. oh, sure. i grew up in a county that practised censorship, y’know? i have to say, though, i would sometimes shudder when i saw the kinds of books that published in egypt — and proudly displayed in windows. but that was mostly non-fiction.

  4. *were published, sorry. it disappeared somewhere.

  5. Have you seen some of the books they publish in America? I had to flee.

  6. or anywhere …
    the only censorship around should be the common sense, which, as we know, is neither common, nor sense. there are cases everywhere of books being “recalled” for one reason or another, but it really helps to not have censorship instituted.
    and yet … think of film classification. and the studies that consisetently show bias in classification that hurts films that were made or deal with women, minorities … the more restrictive the classification, the less distribution. the less distribution, the less chance of similar films in future.

    the road to hell …

  7. …is paved, at least! Just think if it’d been left as dirt.

  8. 😉

    and i just wanted to say i remember the situations salwa bakr describes re. distribution. unfortunately don’t stop with the end of instituted censorship, because they’re tied to capital …

    and then there’s pressure groups. you know, as in parents objecting their (adult) children reading d. h. lawrence at school. or huckleberry finn. or something.

  9. Oh, well, speaking of capital and censorship, I worked in the wonderful world of TV journalism in America. (Once upon a time. A long time ago. It was a different me, really.)

  10. down with censorship! up with integrity and good art!

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