Status: On Trial
Ahmed Naji has been temporarily released from prison in Egypt on December 22 after his two-year prison sentence for “violating public modesty” was suspended by an appeals court on December 18. He was charged by state prosecutors after an Egyptian citizen complained that an excerpt from Naji’s book, The Use of Life, had caused him to experience heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure due to certain sexual content in the story. A lower court had previously acquitted Naji in December 2015, but on appeal a higher court found Naji guilty and sentenced him to the maximum prison term of two years. Immediately after his sentencing on February 20, 2016, Naji was taken to prison and was in jail for 10 months. In a hearing on January 1, 2017, the court set subsequent trial dates of April 2, May 7 and May 21 to continue the appeals process; Naji remained out of jail, though subject to a travel ban, while the trial was underway. On May 21, 2017, the Court of Cassation approved the challenge filed by Naji, overturning his original conviction and two-year prison sentence and ordering a retrial.
On May 16, 2016, PEN honored Ahmed Naji with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award recognizing his struggle in the face of adversity for the right to freedom of expression. Watch the livestream of the award ceremony at PEN’s literary gala on May 16 at 9.15pm.
Ahmed Naji, 31, is an Egyptian novelist and journalist born in Mansoura in 1985. He is the author of three books, Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009), and The Use of Life (2014), as well as numerous blogs and other articles. He is also a journalist for Akhbar al-Adab, a state-funded literary magazine and frequently contributes to other newspapers and websites including Al-Modon and Al-Masry Al-Youm. He has been a vocal critic of official corruption under the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In August 2014, Akhbar al-Adab published an excerpt from his third book, The Use of Life, which had been previously approved by Egypt’s censorship authority. In the excerpt, the narrator smokes hashish, drinks alcohol with his friends, and enjoys a sexual relationship with a woman. Hani Saleh Tawfik, a 65-year-old Egyptian man, filed a case against Naji, alleging that reading the excerpt had caused him to experience heart palpitations, sickness, and a drop in blood pressure.
Prosecutors argued that Naji’s use of “vulgar” phrases and sexually explicit scenes constituted a “disease” destroying Egyptian social values. Naji and his lawyer argued that the words used in his novel were widely used in common conversation in Cairo and also in classical Arabic literature. Naji also said that the prosecutor was treating his fictional novel as if it were fact, threatening to add charges against Naji for “dealing with hashish” because the novel’s excerpt described drug usage. In December 2015, a lower court acquitted Naji. The prosecution appealed the case in February 2016 to a higher court, which found Naji guilty and sentenced him to two years in prison—the maximum sentence for the charges he faced. The editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Adab, Tarek al-Taher, was also fined approximately $1,250 for publishing the excerpt.
The Egyptian Constitution, drafted in 2014, explicitly guarantees freedom of artistic and literary creation, freedom of thought and opinion, and freedom of the press. Article 67 forbids the jailing of artists and writers for publishing their work. However, Article 178 of the Penal Code, under which Naji was sentenced, criminalizes content that violates public morals. Naji’s lawyers submitted a motion to the Prosecutor-General arguing that the sentence against Naji should not be implemented since it violates the Egyptian Constitution, which was finally accepted in December 2016. His legal team has also appealed the verdict, and has asked that the case be retried altogether.
The crackdown on artists and writers in Egypt has intensified since President Sisi took power in 2014, including new restrictions on the press, arrests of writers, journalists, and activists, shuttering of theaters and art galleries, and violent suppression of peaceful dissent and public demonstrations. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of December 1, 2016, Egypt ranks third in the world in its number of jailed journalists, behind only Turkey and China.
Egypt’s literary and political communities have expressed widespread support for Naji. Seven members of the committee that wrote the Egyptian Constitution published a statement in February 2016 condemning Naji’s sentencing as unconstitutional, arguing that the conviction contravenes Article 67 of the Constitution. Over 500 Egyptian writers and artists also signed a statement in February 2016 in solidarity with Naji, criticizing the government’s “multi-armed attack on a number of writers and journalists because of their opinions” and the “terrible and terrifying path taken by the regime.”
• The Use of Life, excerpt
• “A Sad Story of Freedom of Expression: How Do You Sing in Egypt?”
• “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Fate of Revolutionary Art in Egypt”
• “Culture in the Age of Sisi: The Continued Propaganda of Illusions”
• “Egypt’s NGO Laws Continue to Threaten Civil Society”
• “Farewell to the Youth”
• “How to Become an Independent Musician?”
• “Sisi, Do Not Put Our Backs Against the Wall”
• “The Bourgeoisie, Real Estate & Nation-Building, or How the Egyptian & Middle Eastern Art Markets Operate, Part 1”
• Tahrir Generation
• “Mona Kareem Interviews Ahmed Naje” (LA Review of Books)
• “Art and Liberty in Egypt, Today and Yesterday”
• “Ahmed Naji to appear in court for ‘hurting public morals” (RNW Media Interview)
Freedom of Expression in Egypt
• According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 25 journalists were imprisoned in Egypt as of December 1, 2016, making it the third-worst jailer of journalists worldwide, behind only Turkey and China.
• In late 2015, Egyptian authorities widened their crackdown on free expression to target cultural centers including Merit Publishing House, Townhouse Gallery, and Rawabet Theater, among others.
• An Egyptian anti-terror law ratified in August 2015 sets a minimum fine of $25,000 for the publication of any news that contradicts the government’s official narrative on matters of “national security.”
• The protest law of 2013 bans gatherings of more than 10 people in Egypt without official permission from the Interior Ministry at least three days in advance of any public demonstration.
More on the 2016 PEN Literary Gala & Free Expression Awards
• PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award: LeeAnne Walters and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
• PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award: J.K. Rowling
• Publisher Honoree: Michael Pietsch
• PEN Literary Gala ceremony