Cairo International Book Fair opens Sunday

Mary Mourad and Mohammed Saad, Saturday 21 Jan 2012

Historically full of political drama and incident, this year's book fair comes amid the build-up to the first anniversary of the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution

Cairo International Book Fair

Observers and experienced book fair admirers know quite well that the Cairo International Book Fair isn't just an opportunity to sell books, exchange sales and copyrights, or even a chance to network. The book fair has traditionally played a significant role in political life - and that role was most evident from the extent to which media and regime focus is directed there.

The Cairo International Book Fair stands out because it has been the scene of demonstrations by opposition and intellectuals, the Muslim Brotherhood demonstration after Friday prayers, the Cultural Café forum that hosts intellectuals and political figures, plus significant religious presence in many forms.

According to former minister of culture, Emad Abou-Ghazi, politics got into the book fair for the first time when Israel was invited to participate in the early 1980s following the peace treaty signed in 1979. It was the beginning of Mubarak's era, and the invitation was met with huge resentment from the Egyptian intellectuals, who called for demonstrations at the fairgrounds, which was followed by mass arrests. Mubarak was finally forced to give in to the intellectuals and exclude Israel from participating in 1987.

“The fair was a place to protest when protesting was not legitimate and had no room or associations to protect it,” explained Helmy El-Namnam, the former deputy of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), the official body responsible for the fair.

After excluding Israel, demonstrations continued, but over causes such as solidarity with Palestine and against the war on Iraq.

Since 2004, however, other political movements like Kefaya, the April 6 Movement and Independent Judges played a larger role in political opposition. Also, the demonstrations started focusing on local issues; mainly the extension of Mubarak’s term in power, the inheritance agenda of his son, Gamal Mubarak, and extended to relations with America and Israel, according to El-Namnam.

The following are a few of the most significant incidences at the book fair, with experts' opinions as to how it evolved and how it could change in the coming fair.

Before 2000: The star factory

Professor of sociology in Cairo University, Ahmed Zayed, stresses that the fair played a vital role in entrenching the regime figures among intellectual elites. In the end, he says, the fair not only served as a room for Mubarak’s opposition, but also created a class of intellectuals within his allies.

“It was a good chance for the regime to present certain names through seminars, ranging from politicians, media stars to intellectuals. That is why the fair did not present new blood to the Egyptian cultural body,” Zayed pointed out that the fair was a machine to reproduce the regime with slanted, pro-regime publications.

Political analyst, Hassan Nafaa agrees: “If you track the list of the invited lecturers in the fair you’ll easily recognise what exactly they were trying to do. At the beginnings of Mubarak’s rule, he was open to all currents, attempting to bring some of the big names to his side; Mohammed Hassanien Heikal, Pope Shenouda, Farag Fouda and many others from the opposition. However, when the regime discovered that this could negatively reflect on their goals, they excluded anyone who differed from their standards,” he explained.

Later, he continues, stronger pro-Mubarak figures were presented and the fair takes on an even deeper political role.

2000 Religious sensation Amr Khaled makes an appearance

The renowned religious preacher, Amr Khaled, first made an appearance at the Cairo Book Fair of 2000, preceded by heavy advertising reportedly prepared by the Muslim Brotherhood. Ever since, Khaled's reputation sparked throughout Egypt through cassette tapes, CDs, videos and even pamphlets. Although presented as a religious phenomenon, many Egyptian analysts speak of Khaled in political terms. They believe Khaled is a regime agent attempting to divert people's attention away from corruption and economic conditions to religion, without openly promoting the Brotherhood's political agenda. Amr Khaled was among the few who eventually refrained from politics after Egypt’s January 25 Revolution.

2003 Protesting in anticipation of Iraq invasion

It was still January when protests in Egypt started against US policies in Iraq - and it was at the book fair of 2003. Protestors gathered in the main street of the fair grounds, but security guards were deployed to surround the entrances and prevent entry or exit.

Originally, Egyptians started to protest the fact that then Israeli PM, Ariel Sharon, had been invited to Egypt. This quickly turned to protests against the American policies towards Iraq - and the fair became the spot for expressing that anger, still under police control.

2005 The year of oppression: Mohamed El-Sayed Said

Mubarak’s tradition to meet the intellectuals every year while inaugurating the fair aimed to give the impression that the state cared for their view. In reality, it was an effort to absorb them into the regime and to make them indirect advocates, according to the political analyst Hassan Nafaa.

“Some intellectuals tried to make use of these meetings to put new ideas in front of Mubarak for consideration, but many of them used these meetings to flatter the regime and praise its figures openly in anticipation of some reward, or out of fear or their heavy hand. I’ve seen it myself during some of these meetings,” Nafaa said.

This tradition continued until the year 2005, when the late political thinker Mohamed El-Sayed Said came up too clase against the president.

Said requested to comment after Mubarak's speech and he boldly asked the president to initiate amendments to the constitution to release some of the presidential powers, to which Mubarak responded, "you're an extremist." 

Said’s challenge didn't pass lightly: that same year, aside from all of Said's lectures and meetings at the fair being cancelled; there was a fierce crackdown on people demonstrating against Mubarak’s attempts to pass on his throne to his son, Gamal, as well as a heavy hand on banning books, including works of the revered, late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, while books such as Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code were allowed.

This was the last time Mubarak held such a meeting for the next five years and was the beginning of additional limitations and oppression facing the fair.

2008 Receiving Saudi preacher, A'ed Al-Karani

For the second time in a decade, the most notable event of the book fair was receiving an Islamic preacher as part of the cultural programme.

Al-Karani's session was by far the most attended of the entire programme. However, it did cause a stir as to why religious events were hosted at the book fair and not in any other religious location. The response was that Al-Karani was there to celebrate his best-selling book of the year, Don't Be Sad, which sold nearly two million copies, according to the distributors.

The General Egyptian Book Organisation further defended the session, claiming that this reception wasn't part of their programme, but rather of the Saudi publishers’ - over which the Egyptian book organisation has little control.

The pushing of the Saudi cultural/political agenda that is now most evident with the rise of Islamist Salafists in Egypt certainly had a forum in the Cairo International Book Fair.

2009 shutting down the Cultural Café

Fair visitors and participants discovered, to their surprise, that the favourite spot for meetings, discussions and afternoon chats was absent. The little café, with its relatively cheap prices and simple décor, was traditionally right next to the cultural activities tent, Al Makha Al Thakafi. The tent was there, but the cafe wasn’t.

Despite the dozens of food and beverage outlets throughout the fair, the Cultural Café was the usual meeting point for intellectuals and activists. In a metaphorical sense, the Cultural Café was the Tahrir Square of the time, where demonstrations were masterminded.

In addition, the fair entrance was found closed to visitors on Fridays (a traditional demonstration day) until 2pm, again curbing what space there was for demonstrations. At that time, however, Kefaya and various other movements had started demonstrating in other locations, but still the fair had represented the biggest of such gatherings.

It was clear that security mentality had exceeded all expectations.

2010: remarkable events:

The banning of Idriss Ali's book on Gaddafi

The late Nubian author, Idriss Ali, lived just long enough to witness the banning of his book from the last pre-Arab Spring round of the book fair. The author poked fun at Libya’s now late leader, colonel Gaddafi in his famous book, The Leader Has a Haircut.

Book fair without Algeria

The last fair in 2010 also witnessed the peak of tensions between Egypt and Algeria, caused by the football match between the two teams for the World Cup in 2009.

Players and fans were beaten up by hooligan-ish fans and various projects and businesses were affected by the incident, including the book fair.

The last Mubarak encounter with intellectuals

The tradition of the meeting with intellectuals was conducted one last time before Mubarak's presidency ended, but was tightly planned: the invitations were sent to a selected few and the message of the meeting was straightforward: "The president's health is in very good shape."

The meeting was simply meant to dispel rumours that Mubarak's health was deteriorating severely and that his son was preparing to take over power.

What next?

The question of what will happen during the fair that will launch its 43rd round in the next few hours remains unclear. The fair opens only three days before the anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, 25 January. Demonstrations and celebrations are planned for 25 January and, accordingly, the fair will close for two days during the events, to then re-open on Friday, 27 January.

Publisher Mohammed Hashem, and many others, think demonstrations will take place elsewhere – not on the fair grounds.

“This year the fair will not function as a place for protests, since now every square in Egypt is a space for demonstrations,” El-Namnam said.

Within the coming few hours and days we will only start to get a sense of the fair’s role in the new era, however the coming years will likely see a whole new concept behind the most heavily attended fair in the Middle East.

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