Al-Kahera, one of Egypt's major weekly cultural newspapers, was released on Tuesday 23 February with a blank cover featuring only one line: "No to taking imagination to court." Al-Kahera’s cover is part of a larger solidarity campaign to release journalist Ahmed Naji from prison, after the writer was sentenced to two years in prison last Saturday for publishing a chapter of his novel Using Life that the courts say "violates public morality."
The editorial board of Al-Kahera newspaper, which is issued by the Ministry of Culture but operated independent of ministry policies, decided to leave the cover blank and publish the issue it in black and white only, despite the packed issue they prepared this week, which included pieces on renowned journalist and writer Mohammed Hassanein Heikal, novelist Alaa El-Deeb, Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, and Harper Lee, all of whom passed away last week.
A North Cairo appeals court handed down a two-year sentence to Ahmed Naji and fined Tarek El-Taher, the chief editor of Akhbar Al-Adab newspaper EGP 10,000 for publishing the chapter. Naji and Taher were cleared on all charges by the misdemeanors court last January, but the prosecution appealed the verdict. Naji still has a chance to appeal to the Court of Cassation.
Naji is incarcerated in Boulaq Abul-Ela's police station and has not yet been transferred to prison. He was allowed visitation and, according to one of his visitors, Naji is not being mistreated and is kept in a cell separate from other detainees.
The case has led to public outcry on social media and Al-Kahera’s cover was widely shared, hours before it hit the stands.
Sayed Mahmoud, the editor-in-chief of Al-kahera told Ahram Online, "Our cover isn’t a surprise or an act of protest. It is a very normal cover, like any other that we’ve had. The main idea is that the ministry of culture is a state entity that is built on the principle of respecting the constitution. Our newspaper is directed at an audience of intellectuals and writers, an audience that demands the defense of the constitution.
“The constitution is the highest document that regulates the relationship between the state and its citizens and it guarantees, very clearly, freedom of expression and belief. What we want to point out here is the danger of violating the constitution."
A crowd of intellectuals, writers, and artists held a meeting at Merit center for culture in solidarity with Naji. They expressed their refusal of the sentence, condemning the minister of culture, Helmy Namnam, for not protecting freedom of expression and being silent on the imprisonment of writers and artists.
The meeting concluded that an intellectual body should be formed to defend artists and writers, and that laws should be reviewed to ensure that no one is imprisoned due to their creative work.
A number of intellectuals signed a petition to release Naji, saying "We have been following the decline in the performance of Egypt’s state apparatuses, and the increase of repression and its consequences on personal, academic and creative freedom…We have also [witnessed] incidents that have put Egypt in a very sensitive position on the world stage in a time when we need the acceptance and support of the global community."
The petition described imprisoning Naji as part of an attacks campaign targeting writers and journalists for their opinions. Up until the publication of this piece, 150 people have signed the petition until the publication of this piece including novelists Alaa Al-Aswany, Ahdaf Soueif and visual artists Hala El-Koussy, Adel El-Siwi, and ex-minister of culture, Shaker Abdel-Hameed.
Three requests have been filed to the general prosecutor, Nabil Sadiq, to suspend Naji's sentence. No reply has yet been received.
Dar Al-Tanweer, the publisher of Naji's novel Istikhdam Al-Hayat (Using Life), will hold a solidarity conference on Wednesday 24 February at 5:00pm at its headquarters in downtown Cairo. The conference will be attended by ex ministers of culture Gaber Asfour and Shaker Abdel-Hameed, artist Adel El-Siwi, writer Mahmoud El-Wardani, renowned novelist Sonalla Ibrahim, novelist Mohamed Salmawy, and publisher Ibrahim El-Moallem.
The Egyptian publishers association expressed its concern and demanded that the sentence be suspended saying that such verdicts restrict freedom of expression and negatively affect Egypt’s cultural and creative sphere.