Library of Alexandria in Danger

Will Egypt’s newly elected Islamists respect freedom of expression and tolerate ‘sacrilegious’ books?

Sanhita SinhaRoy

French soldiers arrest presumed Somali pirates in the eastern part of the Gulf of Aden off the Somali coast.

Through its Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the largest bloc following a November 28 vote – the first election since the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, and the first free election in Egypt in more than 80 years. Additional parliamentary elections will be held through March.

The Library of Alexandria's collection includes texts many in the Muslim world consider sacrilegious, such as books by Salman Rushdie, art books featuring nudes and books that discuss LGBT issues.

Observers of Egyptian politics will keep an eye on what this fundamentalist surge portends for the country’s cultural and secular institutions, including the renowned Library of Alexandria. Located in Egypt’s second-largest city, the library sits on roughly the same site once occupied by the fabled Royal Library of Alexandria, the most significant library of the ancient world, which was destroyed more than 1,000 years ago.

Today, Sohair Wastawy, its former chief librarian, worries that the election of Islamists could endanger the library’s collections. The library has a huge theater. It has dancing, musical plays and movie presentations, which, according to the right wing in Egypt, are not good things,” she says.

From 2004 to 2010, Wastawy oversaw the collection that currently holds some 1.6 million volumes. Threats to the library are nothing new. Several years ago, when a Muslim member of Parliament complained about the presence of Israeli books in Egyptian libraries, the Mubarak regime’s Culture Minister Farouk Hosni reportedly replied, If those books existed I would burn them myself.”

Longstanding tensions with Israel have always made it a hot-button issue. To really know the people that you’re calling your enemy, you need to know what they are writing,” says Wastawy. We did not want to censor anything.”

The Library of Alexandria’s collection also includes texts many in the Muslim world consider sacrilegious, such as books by Salman Rushdie, art books featuring nudes and books that discuss LGBT issues. 

Wastawy, who is now dean of libraries at Illinois State University in Normal, says she and the library’s director bought many of the volumes with their own money. Because these books are not available in our market, we used to buy them from our vendors in the United States or find them personally when we were outside the country and then send them to Egypt,” she says. We didn’t get them the way people claimed we did, which is through the Israeli press.” 

The country’s current secular military-led government has been unpopular with many Egyptians – both on the left and on the right. In November, tens of thousands of Islamists protested against a military provision that would grant the armed forces a long-term political role as guardian of constitutional legitimacy.” They say this could give the military the final word on major policies (such as ensuring a secular state) even after a civilian parliament and president are elected.

After the upcoming elections, the committee that will draft Egypt’s new constitution will be named. Its members will be decided, at least in part, by the new members of Parliament.

Wastawy says she’s concerned that newly powerful religious fundamentalists could have many books destroyed. We have tried to work with the principle of separation of church and state,” she says. But the library’s fight to stay secular could prove difficult under the country’s new leadership.

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Sanhita SinhaRoy, managing editor of American Libraries magazine, is a former managing editor of In These Times and a former copy editor of Playboy. (Yes, she did read it for the articles.)
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