Cairo International Book Fair: History and challenges

Mary Mourad and Mohammed Saad, Sunday 20 Jan 2013

Historically full of political drama and incident, the second post-revolution book fair comes with even more uncertainty than ever

Cairo International Book
Cairo International Book fair's poster

Despite the challenges facing the annual event, the Cairo International Book Fair is about to open its doors for the 44th time on 23 January.

The second book fair since the January 25 Revolution, this year's event is likely to face even more uncertainty.

The first book fair after the revolution was met with multiple challenges: first was the decision to close the fair for the two days surrounding the first anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, and second was a chaotic attack on fans inside the Port Said stadium that left over 70 dead and millions of Egyptians afraid of being trapped in closed doors of public facilities – just like the fairgrounds.

Following the Port Said tragedy, the fair attracted limited audience, meagre sales and, therefore, minimal news and public attention.

Angry demonstrations in Egypt's tumultuous years post-January 25 Revolution left the fair to the streets, and the historically-active political grounds had only few visitors keen on listening to readings.

However, the show will go on.

Post-revolution, the fair is sure to have even more questions about culture and politics. With the Muslim Brotherhood in power, the cultural scene is expected to become a major battleground, especially during an event that mixes culture, art, books and discussions - without clarity on who is leading the traditional censorship apparatus.

Limited attention given to the fair and the agenda free from any religious or Brotherhood events, however, leaves other question marks.

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 towards the fair.

The Cairo International Book Fair stands out because it has been the scene of demonstrations by opposition and intellectuals, Muslim Brotherhood 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 then president Mubarak's era, and the invitation was met with huge resentment from Egyptian intellectuals. They 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 shifted focus, mainly regarding the extension of Mubarak’s term in power, ensuring that Mubarak’s son, Gamal not “inherit” the presidential post and 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 about their opinion. 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 propose new ideas to Mubarak, 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 of 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 close 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 the fair would face.

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 café wasn’t.

Despite the dozens of food and beverage outlets at 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. The football match between the two teams for the World Cup in 2009 became violent, adding another sore point the countries’ football feud.

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

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.

Short link: