On the Second Anniversary: Censorship Concerns

At a recent news conference, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights noted that, two years after January 25, many abuses of state power continue.

imagesCensorship is among these abuses: Attacks on journalists have been growing (see: Index on Censorship, AFP, others). Lawsuits against journalists, creatives, and commentators for “insulting the president” have reached, according to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, a “112-year high.” Even the English-language press, traditionally freer, is being squeezed: Apparently Hani Shukrallah, the editor of Ahram Online, is being pushed into early “retirement.”

(Presumably this was the reason for the “lack of solidarity” yesterday when there were threats directed at the Muslim Brotherhood’s paper.)

In other sectors, textbooks have been altered. EgyptAir’s in-flight movies are going under new scrutiny.

Certainly, all the problems in Egypt’s cultural sector cannot be laid at the doorstep of censorship, nor of the Muslim Brotherhood. Theater director Galal El-Sharkawy told Al-Ahram last December that Egyptian theater simply continues its downward spiral. “But this is due to the Mubarak regime; what we witness today is a continuity of ending the arts in Egypt.”

Still — despite the beauties of a number of visual-art projects that have sprung up in the last two years, and the surge in revolution-themed narratives — censorship, instability, and fear of censorship create a difficult environment for longer-form artistic developments.

Those who support censorship in Egypt also might be able to count on help from John Brennan, who has been nominated by the US President Barack Obama to run the CIA. Apparently, Brennan’s 1980 graduate thesis at the University of Texas argued for increased state censorship in his case study, Egypt.

Not everyone is pessimistic. Publisher Sherif Bakr, of Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing, looks forward to more books on more new subjects in 2013, more translations, new independent bookstores, and “more professionalism” in book production.  And in a recent interview with Mai Elwakil and Andeel at the Egypt Independent, pioneering political cartoonist Amro Selim remained steadfast:

We need to constantly push the boundaries whether they are set by society, the political regime or even a newspaper’s editors. If people equate your critique of a bearded political Islamist figure with atheism, then you must do it more, all the time, on purpose.

This is ground that we are gaining. It is a battle with possible lawsuits and threats. But we must continue.

We went through a lot to be able to draw the president every day. We won ground under Mubarak’s rule. At the beginning of Al-Dostour, I told them that we must shatter the god-like image of the ruler who we cannot draw.

We started drawing him from the back, and bit-by-bit we turned him around, until making a cartoon of him became the norm. Then we drew his sons, Gamal and Alaa.

We were very happy when these cartoons were published. Before that, if Mubarak were ever represented, it would be with Egypt holding him like her beloved son.

We have come a long way in a society that asked us to “respect” the ruler. Now, they want us to go back.

When you see people dying or losing their eyes and limbs, you find yourself addressing topics fiercely. When you hear about the virginity tests and find the authorities and public defending them, I feel we have to strike back with the same intensity, even if some will be offended. Society will not change unless you challenge it.

As for editorial policies, they can be navigated through a mixture of negotiations and subtlety. I believe there is a communication channel between cartoonists and readers that even editors might miss. It is amusing to experiment with overcoming censorship.

And poetry for the Second Anniversary, from Mostafa Ibrahim:

Ibrahim’s collection of colloquial poetry, inspired by the first Jan 25 uprising, was recently published by BQFP.


  1. congrats on being freshly pressed! lovely post.

    1. Wait, I thought I was lynxgirl. 🙂

      1. haha! That is such a coincidence! 🙂

          1. Amazing writing! I was trying to come up with something unique, and that was the first thing that came to mind!

            1. Well, now there are 2 of us. 🙂

              1. I guess so! I will continue to read your blog.

      2. haha! Such a coincidence!

  2. Your passion and insight give your point an added power, which is why I kept reading. I’ve learned a lot and hope to continue doing so.

    1. Thanks BSM. If you have questions, thoughts, comments, whatever, I do hope you share.

    1. Shukran, ya Freshi Ice Sticks.

    1. Thanks, Christopher.

    1. 🙂

  3. Thank you for writing a very well written post describing the plight of artists in a poorly led society. Great work.

    And congrats on being Freshly Pressed, I’m always happy to read the material here.


    1. The Egyptians, of course, invented writing, and some day — near or far, who knows — the Egyptian people will boot their poor leaders off the stage and usher in a better era for all of us.

      1. I should add..although not in a religious sense…insha’allah.

      2. I have way too much to say in response to this post, your comment, and the recent posts on this blog, best I’ll place those thoughts on my blog without taking up the space here!


  4. As an American with Lebanese ancestry I found this post particularly interesting. My favorite author of course is Kahlil Gibran. I have a large copy of his self portrait off of the cover of THE PROPHET framed and hanging in front of me right now. Keep writing!

    1. Well, Lebanese are some of the world’s best writers, of course, among some of my favorites: Elias Khoury, Rabee Jaber (his THE MEHLIS REPORT is coming soon, and CONFESSIONS is now being translated), Hoda Barakat, Hanan al-Shaykh (I’m sure you’ve read BEIRUT BLUES, if not please do), Etel Adnan, Iman Humaydan, Jabbour Douaihy, and so many more…not even to touch on the graphic novelists. Thanks for your note!

  5. Great post! Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed. Will be coming to visit your blog often…Insha’Allah (no religiousness intended…of course…)

    1. IsA. And no religiosity taken. 🙂

      1. Is it an inside joke? I don’t get the “Insha’Allah” being “non-religious” in these comments. If you don’t mind me asking, why does it seem as though it’s a bad thing even if it were, especially when, in its essence, it’s nothing but religious!

        Just confused.

        1. Lila,

          Why worry about taking up space? Although if you prefer your own blog, of course, I leave it to you.

          No, it’s certainly not a joke. I’ve written about this numerous times. Here are a couple:



          I don’t know if you’re an Arabic speaker, but many contemporary speakers don’t put religion behind “insha’allah” any more than they put religion behind “bless you” after a sneeze.

          1. Thanks for the links. An interesting discussion there on translating the word.

            Yes, I realize that not everyone means the literal meaning, at least not consciously every single time, but isn’t it a bit redundant to have to explain what you mean by it? Unless you are very cautious about people mistaking you for a Muslim when you’re not. Nevertheless, I think intention needs no explanation or else we’d go around explaining every word we say. From you though, I can understand your carefulness with meaning since you’re a translator, aren’t you?

            1. Lila, You’re right, it matters absolutely zero in regular life. I say “insha’allah” and “bless you” and whether I’m really invoking God or not, who thinks about that? (And it really doesn’t matter Muslim, Christian, Baha’i.) But when translating literature, yes, you have to look at whether it really gives the same effect in English as in Arabic, and vice versa.

  6. Great post, censorship and power over information is such a huge topic these days. Sorry to plug my own piece, but you might be interested in a blog I wrote about Google’s Transparency report and how it exposes world governments who are trying to control the flow of information in their countries.

    1. Charlie, where is it?

  7. Wait…John Brennan’s thesis argued for MORE state censorship in Egypt??! And he was chosen to head the CIA? I don’t like the sound of that…

  8. On “some day” where Egyptian people create a better era.. It really depends on the people being united. Look at “Korea” still divorced between North & South. Modern day Iraq is as torn as Egypt the same way America was torn during the civil war. It’s something many can relate to who are not Egyptians and are outside of Egypt, in less violent but still volatile places. People like myself.

    Being in the middle east for a while now, although I am a Canadian of Kuwaiti descent, I still don’t feel safe commenting openly about the state of the country I’m living in. I do it, but not often. And when I do, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing, especially because I’d rather occupy my mind with happier things free from politics. But this topic is mostly on expressing opinions on the matter of censorship, and I vote for the opposite–freedom of expression– which is something I whole-heartedly encourage but find difficult to do for relevant reasons.

    I think everyone deserves to choose what to be, do, or say so long as it doesn’t harm anyone. The truth though is that even as I write this darn comment I want to watch my words in case I get carried away with criticizing and start cursing and attracting unwanted attention of misinformed or cowardly readers. I start feeling paranoid, but my paranoia is nothing compared to that of the government. We all are aware of this when we live in any of the Arab countries in this day and age. We frequently hear of men being jailed for insulting “The Prince,” even the peaceful rallies, ironically, ended up being violent because the police beat the crap out of the marchers.

    This is the implied promise of most gulf countries: shut up or be shut down, but they’re not the only countries doing this, and this article proves the point. Of course, this is specific to commenting on the ruling parties’ regimes. However, many of the citizens here don’t even feel secure enough to write freely on their Twitter or blog without hiding their faces and names in the process. It’s a part of the culture too to hide in some way with the hijabs, burqas, tents, and beautifully elaborate mansions built with a billion bricks. I’m a fan of modesty. It’s fine with most things to keep things private this way, that’s human, but when it’s forced on self expression with things that matter, something is wrong.

    If I happen to openly speak of how badly I think this country is led when it comes to some of the people’s rights and freedoms–or let’s just go out and say it– “if I criticize the ruler,” I’ll be categorized as a terrorist and be put in jail? Do I really want any of that nonsense to possibly happen to me and risk causing my family anxiety, or worse, putting them in danger? Why don’t I just leave the country instead?

    I ask myself this, but how can I expect the society to change if I’m accepting it instead of challenging it? Is the question of accepting or changing a society the dilemma of the artists? Or is it their responsibility to simply challenge it the way Amro Selim seems to approach the matter?

    I think the issue depends on the priority of the artist. From a personal standpoint, the dilemma of the artist is in my bones. I never agreed entirely to this society, but I spent my years here wearing a mask of indifference towards it. I don’t know if I should be proud of my ‘tactfulness’ or ashamed. I certainly feel somewhat of a transient fraud because of it. My reason is always “I’m going to leave anyway, what’s the point of speaking up here? It’s over for me once I leave”… Yet I’m still here, and I’ll carry that Arabic Blood all the way back home to Canada even when I’ve left this country for good.

    Like Egypt, Iraq, and Saudia Arabia, Kuwaiti people are not yet ready to change things and this is why it is the way it is. I don’t hate the middle-east, I love it, it’s close to my heart, and it’s really not that bad. The political regime, however, needs to be adjusted.

    1. Lila, your comment on ‘criticizing the ruler’ brought to mind countries that aren’t just in the gulf states that have such oppressive policies. In Thailand, it is punishable to speak ill of the reigning monarch or even deface currency (or handle improperly) with his image on it. In my time spent there, I too felt as if I had to be more careful of my words and actions as I heard horror stories of foreigners being deported for these reasons. It’s an idolization of the ruling entity similar to what the monarchs of old British Empire received….a “God given right to rule” that the public interpreted and feared to upset. I agree with you in that the political regimes in countries that inspire this fear, even if it’s understated, needs to change in order for there to be a true attempt at an equal and prosperous nation.

      1. Thanks for shedding more light on it, eunoic. And it’s true, there’s an idolization to it. I wanted to share my experience because I’m aware it happens elsewhere beyond Egypt, and in different degrees. It’s found in different places and your comment adds proof to that. It’s clearly the plight of every individual living under a strict political regime and not just artists in a professional sense.

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