CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian writers, artists and film-makers have launched a public campaign for greater freedom of creativity and expression following the jailing of a novelist on charges of violating “public modesty” through his writing.
The campaign, in solidarity with author Ahmed Naji, launched Thursday a series of video messages from intellectuals in support of creative freedom.
In the first video, well-known Egyptian scriptwriter Medhat El Adl said the sentence against novelist Ahmed Naji came as an “extreme shock” to writers and artists, and expressed concern for the future of art in Egypt.
“If this is how it is, my published novels contain things that would put me in prison too,” said best-selling author Alaa al-Aswany, adding that he has signed petitions, along with others from the field, requesting Naji be freed.
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Naji’s detention this month hit the Egypt’s artistic and intellectual community hard as it followed recent sentences handed to the TV presenter and researcher Islam Behery, who is serving a year-long prison sentence for “defaming religious symbols” and the writer Fatma Naoot, who has appealed a three-year sentence for defaming Islam.
The growing movement by Egyptian intellectuals protesting the cases also includes Culture Minister Helmy el-Namnam and two former culture ministers, members of the committee that wrote Egypt’s current constitution, and the Egyptian Publishers Association.
Former Google executive Wael Ghonim, who helped ignite Egypt’s 2011 uprising, also criticized the verdict against Naji.
Rights lawyers and activists say cases filed by the public prosecution against writers and thinkers for issues related to “virtue” or religion have spiked under the rule of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has called for religious reforms to combat extremism.
As an army chief, el-Sissi led the popular overthrow of former Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013 amid mass protests against his rule. Egyptian artists and writers were among Morsi’s most outspoken critics.
“Those who were in your place before you have withered away because of similar actions, and the same way of thinking,” prominent TV host Youssef el-Hosseiny said in his show earlier this month, an implicit warning that el-Sissi cannot afford to alienate Egypt’s artists and intellectuals.
Culture Minister Helmy El-Namnam attended a conference Thursday supporting Naji, the third conference held to discuss the novelist’s sentence in as many days.
Naji was initially acquitted but after the case garnered widespread media coverage prosecutors appealed the verdict, and in the latest ruling he received the maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.
Naji’s defense team says they will appeal the verdict at Egypt’s highest appeals court, the Court of Cassation.