Naji’s recent sentence is not the first and will not be the last. Egypt’s history of prosecuting writers and thinkers dates back thousands of years. Our track record in this matter is no better than the Catholic Church’s. During the past few months and in the last couple of weeks, several cases like Naji’s took place.
Whether it is expression of political dissent, profession of belief, exhibition of interest in an counter-cultural music genre, or a mere adaptation of non-normative lifestyles, the different manifestations of diversity that represent individual choices have faced the same accusation: they threaten morality and propagate indecency in the public sphere. While Naji’s case has its legal and judicial aspects, its social and cultural significance are crucial.
There is no need to refer to the various constitutional articles that protect freedoms of expression and creativity for that would be a definite waste of space. Drafting constitutions whose implementation remains optional is an old tradition in Egypt began with the 1954 constitution.
Moreover I highly doubt the regime in Egypt is concerned with constitutional provisions. After all, the past couple of years have witnessed a number of laws and decisions that bluntly contradict the Egyptian Constitution of 2014. In Egypt, a constitution is more of a tool that serves specific functions at various times rather than contract the state vows to abide by. Therefore discussing the constitutional violations in Naji’s sentencing is a futile attempt to activate a document that’s already bereft of life.
However the idea of morality and public indecency has been a recurrent problem for so many Egyptians. What usually happens is that some form of non-traditional expression takes place and as a result, citizens file lawsuits against the ones responsible for that expression claiming that they offended the morals of Egyptian Society.
Egyptian courts respond to those filed cases with various measures. Sometimes courts decide that there was no offense to public morality in the mentioned instances. At other times, courts decide that this lawsuit represent an infringement on the freedom of expression and acquits the defendant. This example took place a few days ago when a Cairo court acquitted the pro-regime anchor, Ahmed Moussa, on a freedom of expression protection platform. This verdict came out after 48 hours of Naji’s verdict. Needless to say, courts at other times penalise or imprison defendants in collective morality and public indecency cases.
The point is there is no clear definition of what constitutes morality and what represents indecency. What could be seen as morally offensive to one person might be regarded as an every day expression of culture to another, and vice versa. Any attempt to draft a law stating a code of morality will only be an expression of the interests of one segment of society at a specific moment of time.
The idea that there is a static code of morals that society should adhere to is as ridiculous as filing a lawsuit in the name of evasive and obscure concepts like collective morality or public indecency. Involving state branches in identifying moral codes and judging cultural production on the basis of this identification is a guaranteed path to intellectual terrorism.
Finally there is a huge difference between culture and heritage. Non-traditional cultural expressions are usually put on trial in comparison with cultural heritage. But it is important to remember that even what we consider today as heritage was seen by some as immoral heresy at the time of its production. What Naji’s verdict does is pose a question about what kind of cultural production are we after?
Are we willing to nurture individual creativity, argue about its content, and contemplate its diverse and unorthodox significance? Or we would rather crack down upon it and imprison those who dare to think and express differently? Naji’s case proves that we still view cultural production as an activity subordinate to majoritarian, obsolete, inaccurate, and static perceptions of morality.
Morals will never be upheld by court rulings, however laws should be. When the state with all its branches makes sure that laws are equally implemented and justly upheld, then an actual change in public moral codes might take place.
Ziad A. Akl is a political analyst and sociologist. He is a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit in Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.