By: Daniel McElroy
In a legal battle stretching into its third year, Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji is one step closer to securing his freedom. On May 21, Cairo’s Court of Cassation overthrew a previous conviction for “violating public modesty,” though it is likely Naji will face another trial for the same charges.
Naji was originally convicted in February 2016 and sentenced to two years in prison, after publishing an excerpt from his third novel The Use of Life in the state-owned literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab in August 2014. Naji, who worked for the publication, previously had the exceprt cleared by Egypt’s censorship board, but a private citizen who read the piece reported it after claiming to have experienced heart palpitations, sickness, and a drop in blood pressure due to its references to a sexual relationship and drug use.
A criminal court initially acquitted Naji in December 2015 when he and his lawyers argued that the language he had used was also part of classic Arabic literature, and that the charges violated Egypt’s 2014 constitution. Then, in February 2016 prosecutors brought the case to an appeals court, which found him guilty and transported Naji directly to prison from the courtroom. He remained jailed for ten months, until December 2016. His own appeal was heard for the first time on January 1, 2017, but a determination did not come until the end of May.
A vocal and prominent opponent of Egypt’s President Sisi, Naji believes his imprisonment to be politically motivated. The 2014 constitution, which prohibits the imprisonment of artists and writers, went into effect just as Sisi came to power, but restrictions and imprisonments have sharply increased since then and Naji is one of many writers and artists who have been targeted in the past several years.
Naji has faced surveillance and restrictions on travel since his release from prison last December, and no word has yet come as to when these restrictions will be lifted. Nonetheless, Naji called his successful appeal “a small victory for all believers in free expression, not a personal victory” on Twitter last week, adding his voice to a large community of Egyptian writers who had been expressing their outrage since his legal saga began.