During the police state of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, it was common to hear about students being arrested on charges of carrying a novel that threatened the regime, but after 25 January revolution and 30 June uprising people turned a new leaf, or so we thought.
With recent developments, however, it seems these limits in freedoms of expression are back. By the end of 2014, two students were arrested for carrying novels, one of them being George Orwell's novel “1984” that criticizes a dictatorial ruling party that criminalizes political rebellion. The other student was arrested with a novel written by Sayed Qotb the popular Islamist and an old leading member of Muslims Brotherhood.
The Interior Ministry denied the student was arrested for the novel, as investigators say the 21-year-old student was also arrested with two cell phones without batteries, two USB drives and a hard disk, apparently with suspicious anti-regime notes. Human rights lawyers say, however, that the books found on the students will likely be used as evidence against them in court.
The same year, a group of students was arrested in a coffee shop near Al-Azhar University, charged with the possession of novels and flash drives contain revolutionary stuff.
Students with books weren't the only ones under the eye of the regime, as in October 2014, the general intelligence banned one of the print issues of Al-Masry Al-Youm for publishing an interview with Refaat Jibril, one of the pioneering staff in the Egyptian intelligence speaking from his personal experience in the field. Al-Masry Al-Youm received a direct phone call to the “printing house,” according to Ahmed Ragab, the editor of the online website, ordering them to stop the press.
The separate incidents were hailed by the security loyalists who praised the confiscation of anti-regime 'propaganda', but at the same time it sparked anger among social media activists and youth who believe the incidents indicate a new beginning of the regime's crackdown over books and freedom of expression, especially after the latest report published in December 2014 by Freedom House, the US-based observer of human rights, which stated that Egypt is undergoing further restriction of freedom.
According to the report, Egypt’s decline in the 2014 freedom ranking designated the country as “not free.”
Freedom House also has cited “violent crackdowns on Islamist political groups and civil society, and the increased role of the military in the political process” as other reasons for the decline.
“It is not 'suppression' but it’s behavioral and mental disorder, the security forces are practicing their power with brutality,” said Malek Adly, activist and lawyer at the Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights.
Adly said that it’s impossible for the authority to ban people from reading books and not logical to confiscate any novels undesirable to the regime, especially it’s easy to access any information in the internet era. Moreover, it will do nothing but be a strong promoter for more sales of the novel.
Meanwhile, the number of internet users in Egypt are growing. Last August alone, the number of internet subscribers in Egypt rose by 4 percent to 46.3 million, from 44.5 million in July. World users are expected to reach three billion in 2015.
Egypt Independent spoke to a salesperson in a local bookstore, who said the price of the novel “1984” had risen from just a couple Egyptian pounds to LE35. “It’s supply and demand,” she smiled. “After the case of the student who got arrested, the price of the novel rose.”
“Unfortunately, the authority believes the youth are very stupid, but they can’t understand that they are very smart and won’t accept to be silenced anymore,” Adly said.
Echoing Adly, Sarah al-Masry, the media representative at Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), condemned the . “What happened to the students was a new phenomena in 2014 but became wide; it wasn’t the first case to hear about this year,” she said.
Speaking to news website Mada Masr, Mokhtar Mounir, lawyer at the Academic Freedoms Unit of AFTE, said Egypt has a history of many students who have been arrested with novels that are used as evidence against them.
“Part of the confiscated evidence included two studies about academic freedoms released by AFTE and books on Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna,” he said.