March 21, 2019
Alaa al-Aswany, Egyptian author and activist, is being sued by the Egyptian military for insulting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
by Simon Reichley
Alaa al-Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building and critic of the political regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will face a lawsuit filed by the military authority of Egypt. According to reporting in Egypt Today, the suit accuses Aswany of “insulting the president, the Armed Forces, and judicial institutions.” The suit was filed in response to a series of articles that Aswany published in the Arabic branch of Deutsche Welle, including a critique of the Sisi regime’s “megaprojects,” including the Suez Canal Area Development Project, and the practice of appointing members of the armed forces to civil positions.
In a statement posted to Facebook, Aswany decried the lawsuit as “a clear violation of article 65 of the Egyptian constitution, which states, ‘Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. All individuals have the right to express their opinion through speech, writing, imagery, or any other means of expression and publication.’” and that it furthermore violates “article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Egypt is a signatory.”
Aswany is a prominent Egyptian writer and dissident, whose career as a novelist and public intellectual began to take off in the years leading up to the revolution of 2011. His breakout novel The Yacoubian Building, which was widely read in Egypt and adapted to a film and a television series, was seen by some as contributing to the unrest that culminated in the Tahrir Square protests and ultimately removed Hosni Mubarak from power. Tragically, the revolution did not long survive Mubarak’s departure, and, after a coup in 2013, the country has descended into military authoritarianism under the rule of Sisi, a former Field Marshal in the Egyptian military. Which means that Aswany’s work is not yet done. As he told Pankaj Mishra in 2008, “A writer is never neutral, and he is always more than a writer. He is also a citizen with responsibility toward the society he lives in.”
These political convictions put Aswany firmly at odds with the current regime. While he was tolerated as a nuisance and an agitator under the Mubarak dictatorship, his treatment by the Sisi regime has been arguably much worse. In 2015, four years after Tahrir Square, Aswany’s work was banned from daily publication, and he was barred from appearing on state-run media. His public salon, where Mishra had met him in 2008, was forced to shut down. He currently lives in New York, but according to an interview he gave in Les Nouveaux Dissidents (translated and republished in The Guardian) the lawsuit has potentially devastating implications for his family back in Cairo: “One can imagine frightening situations, in which they are removed, in which they disappear. That has happened to my friends – revolutionary friends whose relatives were kidnapped or who disappeared from one day to the next. This regime is terrifying.”
These charges are part of a broad crackdown on dissenting voices across Egyptian society, a crackdown that has disturbing parallels to the ongoing crisis in Turkey, which we’ve written about several times over the last few years. Samy Magdy has reported in the Philadelphia Tribune that the Sisi regime had passed a law permitting the Supreme Media Regulatory Council to shutdown large and mid-sized websites and social media accounts that present a “threat” to national security. A report accompanying the new legislation defined these threats as “anything inciting violating the law, public morals, racism, intolerance, violence, discrimination between citizens or hatred.” It’s not hard to see how an unscrupulous state official might weaponize these terms.
And Amir Al-Tohamy has written a comprehensive and deeply troubling report on the state of the Egyptian media, published this week in Al-Fanar Media. Spoiler alert: it’s not good. Waves of forced closures, denied publication licenses, and cancelled book projects have plagued Egyptian publishing for several years, and it’s causing Egyptian writers out of step with the political climate to flee the country.
Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.