On Wednesday, privately owned newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that the customs authority in Alexandria had seized 400 copies of a book documenting Egypt’s revolutionary graffiti called Walls of Freedom.
But Ahmed Selim, head of the Publications Censorship Authority, told Mada Masr on Sunday that the incident was not a censorship issue in any way, since the book had been approved and was already on the market in Egypt.
“We did not order a ban,” he insisted, stating that the issue was connected to unpaid storage fees.
Al-Masry Al-Youm had quoted Ahmed al-Sayyad, the Finance Ministry’s undersecretary, as saying that the book “instigates revolt” and “gives advice on confronting the police and army forces.”
Selim, meanwhile, told privately owned newspaper Al-Dostour on Saturday that the book does not instigate rioting against the police or army and that it simply serves to document the revolution’s graffiti.
The case was moved to the prosecutor’s office at Alexandria’s port. All the copies of the book were confiscated, and the heads of both the shipping company and the book’s distribution company, Dar Al-Tanweer, to which the shipment was addressed, were summoned for questioning.
The prosecution said in a statement that they received information at the port that a book instigating revolt and rioting was being stored there and was set to be released into the market — although the book has in fact been on the market in Egypt for a year.
Selim told Mada Masr that the issue stemmed from the fact that the books have been stored at customs since July 2014 and that neither the publisher nor the distributor had paid the required fees for storage.
The crowd-funded book, published in Germany by From Here to Fame Publishing and authored by Don Karl and Basma Hamdy, was staunchly supported by Egyptian graffiti artists such as Aya Tarek, Ganzeer and Ammar Abo Bakr. The book contains images documenting graffiti of the three years following the revolution, along with 20 essays in English on the post-revolution street art movement.
“We hope the censor overrules the customs,” Karl told Mada Masr. However, the case is still pending.
According to Dar Al-Tanweer’s general manager, Sherif Joseph Rizk, the prosecutor ordered a committee made up of three police officers to review the issues raised by the police report.
“This is not the police’s job but the censorship authority’s,” he told Mada Masr.
However, Rizk’s lawyer says that most likely they will be looking at the issue of the books being left at the port, not its contents.
Rizk speculates that because the books were left at the port for so long, someone opened the boxes and filed the complaint.
“It stems from the informants’ culture we are living now,” he remarked, expressing dismay at the Finance Ministry making statements to the media regarding the book’s incitement to rioting when it was already passed by the censorship authority.
Ahmed Ezzat, a researcher and lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, which published an in-depth report in 2014 on the impact of state censorship on creativity, told Mada Masr that there is a certain randomness in the procedures related to books arriving from abroad, and that they are not consistent with regards to the law.
Ezzat also noted that the Publications Law (number 20 of year 1936) is loosely defined, allowing for it to be used by the authorities without a court order.
Since the confiscation was reported in the press, the book’s sales on Amazon increased, putting it in the position of number-one bestseller in the online bookseller’s “Graffiti and Street Art” section.
“This is why banning books does not work,” Karl said. “But I cannot be happy about it until I know everyone is safe.”