I’m pleased today to share with you a guest blog from my colleague and friend, Heike, who is once again back home in Egypt with her two cats and dog. As a journalist and animal advocate, she’s intimately involved in the welfare of both. In previous blogs, she’s shared with me the pet situation in Egypt. This time around, Heike shares information on the literary landscape.
The annual Cairo book fair, the biggest and oldest literary event in the Arab world, was abandoned as Egypt convulsed by protests.
The book fair usually attracts about 2 million professional and individual visitors, and was due to open its doors from January 29th till February 8th 2011. Former president Hosny Mubarak was supposed to inaugurate the fair with his usual speech, but as protests across the country continued against his rule and curfews were imposed across Cairo, the event was abandoned. The guest of honor 2011, China, bringing along 248 publishers and 10,000 books, withdrew its delegation on the opening day.
The cancellation of the Cairo fair hits the bottom line of Middle East publishers, many of whom depend on book fairs to sell their books. About 630 publishers from 29 countries – including 17 in the Middle East – have been affected by the collapse of the fair. Unlike other book fairs, at Cairo books are sold directly to the public.
Exhibitors claim that there was no official announcement by the fair organizer that the event was cancelled, and also Mubarak did not come. Many foreign exhibitors had to abandon stands and books when the fair was halted during setting up, and many were stranded after failing to secure immediate return flights. Some exhibiting publishers took a major financial blow from the chaos and lost sales, as big quantities of books were shipped to Egypt ahead of time, and exhibitors are pessimistic about getting these books back.
But the mysterious cancellation policy continues further. Already on January 16th, the independent Al Masry Al Youm newspaper reported that the Cairo Book Fair would be postponed “due to scheduling conflicts”, saying that the General Egyptian Book Organization (GEBO) on January 12th announced its decision to postpone the fair after its chairman Mr. Saber Arab had received a letter from the Arab Publishers Association, complaining that the timing of the fair conflicted with other planned Arab book fairs. GEBO deputy chairman Mr. Helmy Al Nimnim suggested holding the fair after May. However, Cairo fair exhibitors and visitors were not officially informed on the cancellation of the event.
Strange enough, while protests were already ongoing heavily since three days and curfews were imposed, the state-run Al Ahram newspaper still reported on its front page on January 27th, that Mubarak would open the book fair. At the same time, Mr. Ibrahim El Mouallem, chairman of one of Egypt’s largest publishing houses Dar El Shorouk and VP of the International Publishers Association (IPA) had already decided to boycott the opening of the fair to protest the government’s resistance to freedom of expression. In an official IPA communiqué he said that “Egypt is experiencing an escalation of angry protests equal to those that were waged in the pre-communication revolution era. Citizens are suffering further due to the disruption of their internet and mobile services, and the ensuing inability to contact one another. Participation in the Cairo Book Fair would be against its organizational pillars because the host country is experiencing a case of obvious hostility to publishers’ rights and the rights of knowledge and access to information.”
This is not the first time that politics has casts shadows over the fair. In the past, the Cairo book fair was criticized that books with explicit sexual topics or critical to the regime have been banned. It is said that numerous titles presented by foreign publishers have been seized by Egyptian authorities, and during the fair 2005 some book sellers were arrested and two journalists charged for disseminating false propaganda.