Egyptian secular writer battles religious state

An Egyptian feminist writer and teacher forced into exile by Islamic militant death threats for half the 1990s says state suppression of secular thinkers means she still has to go abroad to work.

Nawal El Saadawi, who is making a symbolic bid for the presidency this year, says she is not allowed to speak on state television, write in state newspapers or teach in state universities.

"I teach the relationship between creativity and dissidence. They do not allow it in Egypt. The word dissidence is very frightening," said 74-year-old Saadawi.

The novelist, who left Egypt in 1992 for five years because of the death threats, now teaches at universities in the United States and Spain and returns to Cairo for part of the year.

"I'm still living in exile because I cannot speak, I cannot work, I cannot have my potential here," she said.

Saadawi's "The Fall of the Imam", written in the 1980s, disappeared from Cairo book stores last year after the state-controlled al-Azhar mosque and university recommended it be banned. "They said this book is against Islam," she said.

"The government and al-Azhar want to bring some writers and scapegoat them. Instead of thinking about the real problems we are living: poverty and invasions, the people will be distracted by Nawal El Saadawi who is against religion," she said.

The book portrays a corrupt imam who holds both religious and state power. Saadawi based the character on Egypt's former president Anwar Sadat, who lifted restrictions on Islamist groups to counter the influence of leftists. The policy backfired in 1981 when he was assassinated by Muslim militants.

"The imam was surrounded by his entourage, who help him to control the people -- al-Azhar, the intellectuals and writers, the police, the military -- they are all tools in the hand of this imam. Up until today, it is happening," she said.


Saadawi has added her voice to a campaign for political change in Egypt, ruled by President Hosni Mubarak since 1981. He is widely expected to be nominated by parliament for a fifth six-year term in May.

Saadawi wants the constitution changed to open up the presidential election to more than one candidate and has put her name forward for president in a symbolic move.

At present parliament nominates a sole presidential candidate, whose name is then put to the public.

Saadawi says Mubarak's government, which like her was the target of Islamic militants in the 1990s, has used Islam to help it maintain power in religiously conservative Egypt.

"This country cannot be controlled by a dictator without the use of religion," she said.

"The newspapers are open for religion, but not for secular people because secularism is very dangerous. You would rob the system of one of its pillars -- religion," she said.

Censors removed references to sex, politics and religion from her latest book, "The Novel", which is on sale in Cairo. "The book breaks taboos and many of the value systems," she said.

Young Egyptian artists now practice self-censorship from the start of their careers, Saadawi said, adding that they avoided "politics, religion and sex."

Saadawi, who is a qualified psychiatrist, is often depicted in Egypt as a troublemaker who advocates Western views and is prejudiced against Islamic culture.

In 2001, an Islamist lawyer sought to forcibly divorce Saadawi from her husband through the courts on the grounds that she had abandoned her faith.

The case was built on an interview in which she said the Muslim haj pilgrimage had pre-Islamic origins and called for sexual equality in Muslim inheritance laws. The case was thrown out.

Saadawi has campaigned to have the legislation which allowed the lawyer to raise the case removed from the statute book. She has also campaigned against female circumcision, which she said goes on despite an official ban.