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Roundtable tackles post-revolution publishing in Tunisia, Egypt

The Egyptian and Tunisian publishers unions held a roundtable recently to discuss the industry's future following decades of autocracy

Mary Mourad , Thursday 26 Jan 2012
Cairo International Book Fair
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Although Egyptian publishers long suffered from censorship and the risk of imprisonment under the Mubarak regime, it would appear that Tunisian publishers suffered similar conditions – if not worse – under the deposed Bin Ali regime. A roundtable held on [DATE] as part of the Cairo International Book Fair’s cultural agenda discussed these conditions and opened dialogue on potential future challenges to the publishing industry following the overthrow of the two regimes last year.

Tunisian Publishers Association President Nouri Obaid opened discussion by describing the situation faced by Tunisian publishers under Bin Ali. Tunisia’s autocratic ruler grossly interfered in the publishing industry, to the point where manuscripts were often banned before they were published. Obaid recalled the lengths to which the regime would go to destroy whatever it perceived as a threat: be it religion, political opposition – even literature.

The good news, however, Obaid noted, is that things were changing for the better in post-revolution Tunisia, where the public remains hungry for books and reading. There is now hope, he explained, that the local publishing industry would respond to the new climate of freedom. Nor did Obaid express concern about the recent revolution in electronic reading, which he views as an opportunity to promote book-reading and literacy.

Professor Munsif, a Tunisian publisher and speaker at the roundtable, described in more detail the oppressive tactics employed by the former regime. Not only was the publication of certain books prohibited, he said, but even the distribution of books from other countries was difficult, sorely limiting the local market for any books not in accordance with the regime's tastes.

The most significant form of “resistance” literature in Tunisia during this period had been “prison literature,” said Munsif. This type of writing has flourished even more after the revolution, he noted, and is possibly now the most common type of literature in the country, having attracted considerable local and international attention.

The overall change in Tunisian writing, the professor explained, is how the social dimension of writing has expanded to give greater attention to society and its challenges and the problems of the under-advantaged – a change that began even before the revolution.

"Political revolutions are usually preceded by evolutions of thought," Munsif said. "Contemporary texts reveal a much freer environment, dealing with problems long covered up or ignored by the regime, but which are now at the forefront of events in Tunisia. And now these texts are no longer bound to one place; they cross borders very easily."

Munsif concluded by expressing hope that Tunisia’s local publishing industry – in light of these new circumstances – would get a new lease on life.  

The Union of Egyptian Publishers was represented at the roundtable by its head, Mohamed Rashad, who began his talk by describing the difference between the plight of Egyptian publishers and those of their Tunisian counterparts.

Censorship in Egypt was first exercised by religious authorities and some security agencies, Rashad recalled. But that changed after laws were passed requiring a court order to ban books. "Publishers used to be afraid," he said, "and many were imprisoned by the former regime."

But there’s cause for optimism, Rashad explained, since freedom has largely been restored to publishers and censorship abolished – giving back to society the right to make its own choices about what and what not to read.

"We must consider our respective revolutions as a means of achieving publishing freedom,” Rashad said. “The publishers’ code of honour should be our standard," he added, in reference to a statement issued by the Egyptian Publishers Union enshrining principles of mutual respect and freedom. The code also makes penalties for publishing violations the concern of the union and not of the state, thus providing publishers with the security they need to perform their role to the best of their abilities.

As for contemporary Egyptian literature, Rashad opined that no new genres or styles had emerged since Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising, which, he said, has been followed by numerous published works featuring little in the way of literary innovation.

The risks for the future, speakers agreed, was from the possible rise of Islamist governance, which might attempt to force its own rules on the industry.

On the first day of the book fair, the union issued a statement demanding that one of its members be represented on the committee mandated with drafting a new Egyptian constitution. The statement met with some controversy, given the union’s traditionally conservative stances. But roundtable attendees, for their part, stressed the importance of the union’s involvement in the drafting of laws governing freedom of expression so as to allay publishers’ current fears.

"In a free environment, publishing flourishes,” said the union’s Assem Shalaby. “But once this freedom is limited, publishing withers.”

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