Fatima Naoot is a renowned and controversial Egyptian writer and poet that considers the absence of education as the main cause of any problem present in Egyptian society. She believes in unrestricted freedom and confronting restrictions to personal freedoms is her life’s goal, even when these restrictions originate in religion.
Naoot occupied the spotlight in Egyptian media outlets in October 2015 after she published a Facebook post that coincided with Eid Al-Adha, the Islamic holiday and feast in which Muslims typically slaughter an animal in celebration. Her post depicted the slaughter as the “greatest massacre committed by human beings”.
Following the Facebook post, several Egyptian public figures affiliated to the political Islamic current lambasted her, calling her post an insult to Islam. She has retaliated by arguing that she was criticising the way in which many people slaughter the animals rather than the holiday as a whole. She said many people torture the animals in order to facilitate their slaughter, and had attached a video to her post explaining this position.
Nevertheless, a lawsuit was eventually filed against Naoot on charges of insulting Islam. In January 2016 Naoot was sentenced to three years imprisonment for her post.
The verdict sparked huge controversy and outrage among Egyptian intellectuals and has been considered a setback for freedoms in Egypt.
The concerned intellectuals saw the verdict as part of a surge in operations against the freedoms of opinion and expression carried out by security forces.
In November, An Egyptian appeals court reduced and suspended the three-year prison sentence issued against Naoot. The sentence was reduced to six months and its execution was suspended.
However, Naoot still considers herself in prison, despite the verdict’s suspension. She had returned from an overseas work trip to appeal her decision, saying that the suspension does not mean she has been acquitted of the charges.
Daily News Egypt sat with Naoot to discuss the current state of freedom in Egypt and the significance of her Facebook post, in addition to highlighting chronic problems in Egyptian society and ways to eliminate them.
How do you see the current status of freedom of expression and creativity in Egypt?
Egypt is still suffering from restrictions on freedom it inherited six centuries ago. The writer Youssef Edris said, during an era which generated great cultural awareness, that “the freedom allowed in the entire Arab world is not enough for one writer”. Currently, we are witnessing the imprisonment of several poets and intellectuals. This crackdown represents a danger as those cultural and intellectual prisoners are the leaders of cultural awareness.
These crackdowns effectively ensure that intellectuals practice self-censorship and when this happens, you can be certain that Egypt is in danger.
Recently the well-known intellectual Islam El-Beheiry was released due to a presidential pardon. Immediately after his release he announced he would be the last intellectual to be imprisoned as a prisoner of conscience. Despite this, however, there have been files against prominent TV anchor Mofeed Fawazy and writer Youssef El-Qaid for their opinions.
Do you think that steps taken by the presidency, such as the pardons and the National Youth Conference, contribute effectively to supporting freedom of expression in Egypt?
President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued presidential pardons to several detained young men and intellectuals, however; this is an individual decree by the president and does not necessarily indicate a trend being adopted by the state. These pardons come from the presidency, which is an institution apart from the state institutions.
In Egypt, there are “fundamental obscurantist” parliament members. This ideology is present in different government and the educational institutions in addition to media outlets.
We are suffering in general from an obscurantist state not only in Egypt but across the Arab world. We are so opposed to the spread of knowledge.
When you examine an educational book from Yemen you will find that their syllabus incites sectarian strife. Such syllabi fuel extremism and terrorism.
The Egyptian state is currently fighting terrorism and supporting it simultaneously. The state only fights those who are victims of the terrorist ideologies promoted by prominent fundamentalist figures that have garnered respect and recognition from the state.
The state should first and foremost fight the ideology, not the physical manifestation of terrorism. It is after all the ideology which breeds its many physical forms.
Do you believe that there is a wide gap between Egypt’s presidency and other state institutions?
Egypt has yet to develop into a state of institutions. Egypt is seen as a one-man show. This is clear when you look at sectarian incidents. The president in his speeches always calls for a rapid renewal of religious discourse, while other state institutions react quite differently.
The president is working hard to establish Egypt as a state of institutions, but currently the government’s performance has been slow in pace. Egypt is in dire need of a full restructuring of its institutions and the countering of corruption.
How do you see the recently reduced and suspended three-year jail sentence issued against you?
Despite the fact that the sentence was reduced and suspended, I still consider myself imprisoned because the judge did not absolve me of guilt. He may have suspended the verdict, but I will continue to appeal against the primary verdict until my innocence is proven.
Several media outlets have circulated that you fled Egypt following the three-year verdict. What was the reason behind your trip to Canada at that time?
This is not true, I had gone to Canada because I was officially invited to be honoured in April as an Egyptian that has enriched Egyptian culture. I spent only 10 days in Canada and contrary to speculation in the media I was not there escaping from the judicial verdict issued against me.
In Canada, I was honoured by the Egyptian ambassador to Canada Moataz Zharan. Following the ceremony, I returned to the United Arab Emirates where I was on assignment for both privately-run newspapers Al-Youm Al-Sabaa and Al-Masry Al-Youm. Once I was finished with my assignment, however, I returned to Egypt immediately to appeal the verdict.
How many times have you met with the president, and did he display any genuine intent to develop Egypt’s educational sector?
I met with Al-Sisi three times. The first one was during his presidential campaign, and the other two times came after he assumed power in Egypt. During these meetings I sensed he genuinely wanted to reform education in the country, but as you well know it is impossible to achieve this dream on your own. All of Egypt’s state institutions and classes in society must come together to support him.
How do you react to accusations made by Islamists that you are not well versed in the Quran or Islam?
To be frank, I am an avid proponent of specialisation. I have never tried to say anything about religion with authority because it is not my field. However, what I have criticised in my Facebook post has nothing to do with the religious aspect of the feast.
What I criticised was the brutal way by which some people slaughter animals during the feast. Some people torture the animals before slaughtering them, which is a clear violation of Islamic rituals and instructions, which obligates Muslims to softly and kindly stroke animals before slaughtering them, not torture them.
I released my statement alongside a video of what I was explaining. Despite this, the lawyer who filed the lawsuit against me did not mention the video during the case, despite it being relevant.
The video itself was a graphic depiction of a cow waiting to be slaughtered. In the video a man can be seen torturing the cow before killing it by smashing the cow’s legs before slaughtering it. To top it off, the people in the video are committing these acts in front of their children, which will likely lead those children to imitate them in the future which will only generate more violence. Such imitation is apparent when you look at cases such as the boy in Saudi Arabia who slaughtered his sister after he witnessed his father violently slaughtering a sheep.
What is your opinion regarding the performance of the current parliament?
During my candidacy in parliamentary elections, I described the electoral campaigns that took place before the parliamentary elections as a brothel election. I say this because many voters sold their votes and this is a serious threat to the nation because in the end what they are selling is their country.
The current parliament has let us down. It has not been performing to a satisfactory level. When I was a parliamentary candidate I often called for the removal of immunity for parliamentarians, because they should not be raised above the law and should be treated like any other citizen. This position attracted a lot of criticism from serving parliamentarians.
Do you think the military insurgency in North Sinai can be resolved through security solutions?
It is delusional to think that the security solution currently being carried out in North Sinai is the only solution to end terrorism. This is may be a short-term solution, but the state should confront terrorism in North Sinai by waging an intellectual war against it.
Egypt supports intellectual terrorism through the educational curriculum that is being taught to children. The defects of society are represented in the decline of moral values.
The terrorism based in North Sinai should be eliminated using a short-term and long-term approach simultaneously. The short-term approach should be to attempt to kick-start a paradigm shift by utilising religious rhetoric and media outlets to change our collective prejudices towards women in this society. Such a paradigm shift should focus also on eliminating differentiation based on religion.
The long-term plan depends on the rehabilitation of the newer generations by reorganising our educational system to be strict and of high quality. A strong educational system is vital to achieve progress in any situation, and the educational system should cast students to become intellectuals.
The UAE is considered a model that has applied similar educational systems. They have reformed their educational system by removing all verses of the Quran that may seem to incite violence from the syllabi of elementary students. These verses are dealt with at higher levels of education, when the students have had time to mature.
What do you think of the “reconciliation sessions” as a solution to the sectarian strife that often impacts Upper Egypt?
The reconciliation sessions that are being held after incidents of sectarian strife are to my mind the reasons behind these incidents to begin with. To me, these sessions are in essence exactly like the “kiss of Judas”.
Upper Egypt frequently falls victim to sectarian strife. These incidents end with a reconciliation session that often circumnavigates law enforcement and encourages the repetition of these incidents.
Coptic Egyptians are often forced to accept the results of reconciliation sessions because of societal pressures, despite the fact that they as citizens should have the same rights as any other citizen.
Finally, what is your feedback regarding the recent economic decisions issued by the government?
The recent governmental economic decisions represented in the devaluation of the Egyptian pound and fuel price hikes are not good for the Egyptian citizen, but it is necessary in order to achieve rapid economic reforms.
Egypt is considered a country that wastes a tremendous amount of resources. Even our citizens often purchase things in excessive quantities that exceed their needs. This kind of behaviour is a result of an absence in education.