Cairo Book Fair (Photo: Al-Ahram Weekly)
The curtain comes down on Egypt’s largest annual book event, the Cairo International Book Fair on Saturday with some interesting changes. The fair had been extended for four days reportedly to save the fair’s sales that were affected by a violent political scene that erupted around the two-year anniversary of Egypt's revolution and the depreciation of the Egyptian currency.
The decision to extend the fair for four more days to close on 9 February instead of 5 February is said to have a role in the resignation of the Egyptian minister of culture, Saber Arab, Monday. Reports claim that President Morsi had rebuked him for taking the decision solely, however, the credibility of these reports remains in question.
This year, Morsi broke the presidential tradition set by ousted president Mubarak by refusing to meet with the intellectuals on the fair opening and choosing, instead, to meet with the publishers.
The president also protested on the fair’s main theme this year, which was "Dialogue not clashes" commenting to Ahmed Megahed, head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, during the meeting "As if there are any clashes." Only three days after his comment the country broke out into heavy clashes that left more than 60 dead and hundreds injured in two days in Cairo, Port Said and Suez.
Although this surge of violence affected the number of the fair visitors, book sales were not badly affected.
According to many Arab publishers that spoke to Ahram Online, 85 to 90 per cent of the books sold are to institutions, universities, local publishers and libraries in Egypt. Individual sales, then, only make up 10 – 15 per cent.
For instance, the director of Al-Ahram publishing's 1000 square metre wing, Safwat Abaza, said to Ahram Online that 90 per cent of the sales he makes are from major institutions that buy wholesale. Syrian, Jordanian, Palestinian publishers said the same. They come to the Cairo fair to meet other publishers and make deals with universities and institutions.
This may explain why most publishers were not afraid that the unrest in the country may dissuade individuals from attending the fair, because commercial deals comprise the bulk of their sales.
"I sold the amount of books that I expected. I feel satisfied with what I made," said Abdel-Ghaffar Abdel Hady, a Libyan publisher.
In addition to the violent political scene, the depreciation of the Egyptian currency to the American dollar - the standard currency that the Arab publishers adopt - also did its part to keep the general public from coming to the fair. Books prices were up in many cases by 30 to 35 per cent.
The fair's logistical organisation was by far better than the past years. The open exhibition halls were cleaner and covered by waterproof material to avoid last year’s losses caused by the rain that destroyed many books.
The cultural programme, which was too busy this year, was still dull in comparison with the past years. Many stars that were invited did not come; most of the discussions were not worth listening to. The programme did start a new tradition, however, of hosting a number the ministers of the Egyptian cabinet to meet with the fair’s audience.
The ministers were heavily criticised for being "useless and paralysed" in the face of political and economic problems storming the country.
The fair closed with what some people saw as a symbolic slap to the Muslim Brotherhood, when the judging panel of the Cairo International Book fair awards gave the best political book award to Brotherhood insider, Tharwat El-Kherebawy for his book Secret of the Temple, where he reveals many secrets the Brotherhood had long sought to hide.
Overall, the fair was obliterated by the fighting on the streets between civilians and state security and also was not able to move the static cultural scene in Egypt; however it gave some space for some who needed to stop breathing the bloody air of politics.
One commentator summed up the whole issue: "It was not the proper time to hold the fair, but there was no way to not to hold it."