November 14, 2014
Today in 1984: Egyptian student arrested with copy of Orwell’s classic
by Julia Fleischaker
A Cairo University student was arrested last weekend, and rumors immediately began to circulate that his possession of a copy of 1984 by George Orwell was a big part of the reason. The Guardian puts it in context.
Al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s leading private broadsheet, said a student identified only as Mohamed T had been caught in possession of the book at Cairo University, where a year-long wave of anti-government protests has seen several students killed by police, dozens expelled and hundreds sent to jail.
Government critics have likened the country’s return to strongman rule to the book’s plot, and social media users pounced on the story on Sunday evening….
In Egypt, the regime claims to have seized power to save democracy and says its authoritarianism will build a freer future – an argument Orwell pre-empted more than 65 years ago when he wrote that many regimes in history “pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal”.
According to the English language website Mada Masr, which picked up the story from the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, a police charge sheet included the fact that the student was holding a novel “addressing the ‘dictator and corrupt military regimes,’” and a notebook that contained references to the Islamic caliphate.”
The police deny that the book had anything to do with the arrest, or that they’re even familiar with book’s subject matter at all. Mada Masr quotes General Mahmoud Farouk, Head of the Investigations Unit at the Giza Security Directorate, “None of us knows anything about this novel in the first place.”
According to the police, Mohamed T was arrested for filming security forces without their permission. That, however, is not technically a crime under the current regime. Mada Masr spoke with Mokhtar Mounir, a lawyer at the Academic Freedoms Unit of the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression .
Even the accusation of filming police forces is illegal according to Mounir. “As long as the student is filming in a public place, there should not be any legal penalty according to the Penal Code, but the recent crackdown on freedoms in public space has made random arrests the easiest thing police can do,” he added.
Mounir believes that the book will end up being used as evidence against Mohamed T regardless.
“Although confiscating all the personal belongings of defendants is routine procedure, we have a history with many students who have been arrested with novels that are used as evidence against them,” he explained.
He referred to the case of a student arrested this year from his home: “Part of the confiscated evidence included two studies about academic freedoms released by AFTE and books on Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna.”
Mounir also referred to cases of the “café detainees,” a group of students arrested a few months ago from a café close to Al-Azhar University. Books, novels and flash drives with revolutionary artwork were part of the confiscated evidence used against them. Al-Azhar student Sarah Khaled also spent eight months in jail for carrying a pin with the Rabea sign on it.
Mohamed T’s case has been referred to prosecutors for investigation.
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.