A War Against Intellectuals

Searching for the Arabic word for "dissidence" a few years back, Egyptian writer Nawal el-Saadawi was stumped. In the end, she discarded al-ihtijaj (protest) and al-muarada (opposition), settling on al-nidal, struggle. The translation seems more apt by the day. Egyptian dissidents and intellectuals are under fire from two very different forces: the government and militant Islamists. In the 1990s, Parliament passed a series of laws cracking down on political activists. At the same time, fundamentalists launched a war on secular culture, agitating for censorship and prosecution of writers who criticize the Islamic status quo. Over the past decade, writers have been imprisoned for their political beliefs, and injured or killed for angering Islamic militants. Says Hisham Kassem of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights: "It's not safe to think in this part of the world."

Saadawi knows the dangers. She's been writing for half a century, and her fierce critiques of Egypt's political and religious establishments have meant she's been sacked, imprisoned, featured on Islamic militants' death lists and exiled. Earlier this spring, Egypt's mufti said that Saadawi's remarks to a Cairo magazine "ousted her from Islam." In a wide-ranging interview with the Cairo news magazine El-Midan, she allegedly said that hajj, or pilgrimage, was "a vestige of pagan practices."

Saadawi says she was misquoted. "They took my words out of context and wrote very provocative headlines," says the feminist activist. After the mufti's statement an Islamist lawyer, Nabih el-Wahsh, filed complaints with the prosecutor general, demanding that Saadawi be divorced from her husband. His argument: she is an apostate, and Muslims cannot marry apostates. Saadawi isn't the first intellectual threatened with forced divorce. In 1995 the Arabic-literature professor Nasr Abu Zeid was ruled an apostate by an Egyptian court, after a campaign by radicals offended by his writings on the Quran. Rather than separate from his wife as the ruling demanded, he went into exile in the Netherlands. Late last week the court threw out the apostasy case against Saadawi. But a second case, determining whether she should remain married, is due to be heard June 18.

Saadawi was luckier than sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Last week Egypt's Supreme Security Court sentenced the prominent pro-democracy activist to seven years in prison for "spreading tendentious rumors" about election fraud, accepting money from the European Union without permission from the Ministry of Social Affairs and embezzlement. Sentenced along with him were 27 of his colleagues from the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies, an academic institution Ibrahim founded, dedicated to advancing civil society in Egypt. Their crimes ranged from collaborating with Ibrahim to forging official documents. The case was a showpiece for human-rights violations, say government critics: some of the accused were detained without charges, others were interrogated without access to lawyers. It's "a terrible embarrassment for Egypt," says Dan Tschigi, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo.

Over the past decade protest has grown increasingly perilous in Egypt. In 1992 the government passed the Anti-Terror Law, which allowed it to detain and try hundreds of members of the moderate Islamist organization the Muslim Brotherhood. It also passed Military Decree No. 4, which stipulates a minimum sentence of seven years in prison for receiving foreign aid without permission.

If Egypt's government punishes political dissent, militant Islamists chill cultural expression. Last year, thousands of students rioted on the campus of the venerable Muslim university Al-Azhar after the opposition Islamic magazine Al-Shaab deemed Syrian writer Haider Haider's novel "A Banquet of Seaweed" insulting to Islam. The government responded with its own brand of censorship: shutting down Al-Shaab for the summer in retaliation for the campaign. The battle of the books has occasionally become violent. In 1992 the poet and columnist Faraq Fouda was gunned down and killed by Muslim extremists. In 1989 Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was knifed in an attack by Islamists. But Saadawi has vowed that she won't leave Egypt, and she won't divorce her husband: "My spirit is very high, because many people support me." The courts and militants can step on dissent, but they can't stamp it out.