Something to censor

Book censorship in Egypt is alive and well and may signal trouble for the country’s fledgling democracy. It serves as a distressing reminder that the old regime is not a mere ghost from the past. For most Egyptians, censorship might not be seen as a critical issue today, given the other weighty challenges the country is facing. But the persistence of censorship is indicative of a pre-revolutionary mindset that refuses to go away.

I returned this semester from a two-year teaching leave at Georgetown University’s Qatar campus to my post at the American University in Cairo (AUC). On my way back, I brought a collection of books, some that I had shipped to Doha when I moved there and others newly acquired. I was asked beforehand by the AUC office in charge of book clearances at customs to prepare a list of all my book titles and submit it with my other documents upon arrival. This request prompted me to inquire whether the government still censored books, to which I was told nothing had changed. 

At first, I complained about the continuation of the practice and about having to spend my time making a long list of hundreds of book titles. Assuming the whole thing was pro-forma, no more than atavistic red tape, I even left out the Arabic titles (my computer did not have Arabic keys).

Upon my arrival, I was informed by the AUC department secretary that the censor had asked to inspect some of my books. I mused he was a trusting censor who handed your books first and asked questions later. Then, the contrarian in me who loathes authoritarian attitudes common to our region spoke out: “No. How could this be?” I am not Egyptian, and although I have an American passport, I'm still Palestinian with all the vulnerabilities that this entails. I worried that I could be denied a work permit and quietly lose my job. Or, I could get embroiled in a protracted bureaucratic battle. So, I decided to comply. 

An AUC employee brought back my list with the ten suspicious titles clearly marked. He seemed strangely eager to get the books to the censor. We emptied the eight boxes together, each of us keeping an eye out for the books in question. I counseled patience and tried to keep him at ease. Meanwhile, I was getting annoyed with the senseless intrusion into my intellectual space.

It’s tempting to hazard peering into the head of the censor. Why did he choose those books?  What did the choice reveal about his thinking? The books covered many subjects, yet Egypt and Islam seemed to be common themes (thankfully, that shipment did not include books on sex and gender). Perhaps because titles are only suggestive, some of the choices seemed random if not slightly comical.

Among them were innocuous titles like Egypt under Nasser and Sadat and The Industrialization of Egypt (the latter incidentally co-authored by Samir Radwan, former minister of finance in Essam Sharaf’s cabinet). Other titles did not even suggest any relationship to the region. What was so suspicious about Green Planet Blues, a textbook about global environmental politics? Would young minds risk being poisoned by reading The Dreams of a Nation? Some books carried more explicit titles, like Political and Social Protest in Egypt and Memories of Revolt. But in the wake of Egypt’s widely admired revolutionary uprising, shouldn’t officials want students to learn about public protest and how it is narrated?

The censor undoubtedly wants his actions to serve as an instrument of control and a reminder to citizens that big brother is watching, as if nothing has changed. But he must also realize well that censorship in the age of the Internet, satellite television, and e-books cannot possibly stop people from reading what they want.

My books were delivered back a week later. Yet, I cannot help but ask whether it would better serve Egypt to have a government that mobilizes its resources to encourage reading and knowledge acquisition rather than wasting time censoring books?

Sharif S. Elmusa is an associate professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.

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