C for censorship

Egypt's Morality Police has confiscated a new graphic novel, Metro, by Lybian-born artist Magdi El-Shafee, claiming it offended public morals.
Excerpt from Metro. © Magdi El-Shafee

BEIRUT/CAIRO, April 22, 2008 (MENASSAT) – It wasn't long after Magdi El-Shafee had toasted the publication of his new adult graphic novel, Metro, that his publisher was raided last week by Egypt's increasingly active Morality Police, Shoorta el-Adaab. Although the police apparently had no court order or even identification, they proceeded to seize all copies of Metro, accusing it of offending public morals.

"They turned the place upside down. It was a complete mess," Naira El-Sheikh, a spokesperson for the Dar El-Malameh publishing house, told MENASSAT, adding that the police also seized samples of other Malameh publications and a number of authors' contracts.

Allegedly, the police also ordered booksellers to deny all knowledge of the book and to delete any relevant data from their computers. 

Stirring the pot

Billed as the first adult graphic novel in Arabic, Metro is set in modern Cairo and portrays a young man's struggle with the social, economic and political problems of his country. The book's main character is Shihab, a young software designer who has been forced into debt by corrupt officials. To solve his problems, Shihab decides to rob a bank with his friend Mustafa and ends up finding himself trapped in a story of financial and political corruption.

Magdi El-Shafee believes that the Morality Police pulled the plug on his publication because of its "touchy" and morally sensitive content.

"Metro stirs the pot because the story is published in a free speech manner. It contains modest sex scenes and a few comic political illustrations", he told MENASSAT.

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Dar El-Malameh is not just any publishing house. It is run by former political activist and blogger Mohamed El-Sharqawy who was infamously kidnapped in May 2006 and subsequently sodomized and tortured by members of Egypt's state security police.

El-Sharqawy was arrested again at the beginning this month together with dozens of other activists who were involved in the April 6 street protests against rising commodity prices and low wages. El-Sharqawy was released from detainment only on last night, April 21, after having spent two weeks at various Cairo prisons, including the same one in which he was tortured two years ago.

'Annoyed and bitter'

But according to Malameh spokesperson Naira El-Sheikh, who is also El-Sharqawy's fiancee, El-Sharqawy was nowhere close to the street protests when he was arrested. He was fixing a flat tire on his car at El-Sheikh's home in a Cairo suburb.

"He was never even near the event. They detained him right outside my building," she said.

El-Sharqawy is currently in good shape but he is very tired as a result of going on a hunger strike during his detention, El-Sheikh said. And even though he was supposedly arrested as part of the April 6 protest, he said he was also interrogated about Metro prior to his release.

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Meanwhile, author Magdi El-Shafee is about to get all tangled up in Egypt's legal system. He has been told that he faces charges of "harming the public harmony" and "tarnishing [the reputation of] political figures."

When we spoke to him yesterday, he was disgusted and angry over the seizure of his book.

“I am annoyed and bitter," El-Shafee said. "It is shameful that a book is confiscated in this manner in the 21st century. I never imagined that it would go this far."

Rights groups have condemned the incident, saying that last week's raid tempers with Egyptian law.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRInfo) said in a statement that Metro's confiscation is "a severe violation of freedom of expression" and that it is illegal under Egyptian law for the Morality Police to search a publishing house without a court order.

Egyptian activists are currently gearing up for another day of protests on May 4, marking President Hosni Mubarak's 80th birthday.

"The situation is critical in Egypt at this moment. The tensions are increasing every day," Mina Zekry, Program Director at HRInfo, told MENASSAT.

(Magdi El-Shafee's website is at www.magdycomics.com. Excerpts of his work can also be seen at Words Without Borders.)