ancient egypt aphrodisiacs
Egyptian art has long featured sexual imagery - but a recent crackdown has seen writers and musicians censored.YouTube

An Egyptian novelist faces jail after publishing a book based on the scurrilous sex lives and wife-swapping antics of the country's middle class. Ahmed Naji, whose new novel is called Use Of Life, faces two years in prison and an £800 fine for explicit sexual content and offending public morals.

The case comes amidst a wave of regressive rules in Egypt under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – who met with David Cameron in London last week – including a proposal by the head of Egypt's musicians union, Hany Shaker, to impose a dress code on female singers who show too much skin.

In his last opinion piece for Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt's largest private daily newspaper, Naji prophetically predicted the legal quagmire he would find himself in a few weeks later. Commenting on Shaker's proposal, he wrote: "Anyone carrying a camera or practising an art form...can be referred to criminal prosecution.

"As with most laws in this country [Egypt], there's no room for debate...we will sit and wait for police officers to come and kill off the simple things we enjoy and not only that, but to also teach us some manners."

Speaking to IBTimes UK about the charges against him, Naji said: "This is one of the ways the regime uses to deal with political dissidents."

Sisi, who was in London to bolster his country's credentials as a stable partner for the UK in a turbulent region, has considerably tightened the freedoms gained with the Egyptian revolution in 2011. Since ousting Mohamed Morsi in 2013, he has jailed more than 40,000 political detainees, many from the activist youth and the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood,

Meanwhile, hundreds have been killed as a spate of forced disappearances and regressive security laws have been introduced to hamper the work of journalists.

"As the UK has looked to Egypt as a partner in the region, the British public and government should remember that, under Sisi, record numbers of journalists have been jailed for their work," Yasmine El Rifae, a research associate at the Committee To Protect Journalists said.

She explained that Naji's case is not unique and has been historically used by various Egyptian regimes. "Under Egyptian law, any private citizen can bring a lawsuit against a writer on grounds of different kinds of 'offensiveness' and the state has pressed forward with charges in several cases to do with popular satirists and critics," El Rifae added.

The Use Of Life is an experimental graphic novel in which Naji casually observes the lives of Cairenes in absurdist tones. It leans heavily on explicit sexual imagery from wife-swapping in lower middle-class suburbs to drug sellers in brothels in ghettos. The comic strips add to the surrealist aesthetic Naji is trying to convey and that is why he is going to trial on 14 November.

The plaintiff argues that he suffered cardiac arrhythmia, fatigue and low blood pressure when he read the novel excerpt from its graphic depictions in August 2014 when it was published. Naji maintains that the work should be read as fiction, while the court is treating it as a piece of journalism that has offended public morals.

El Rifae says "morality tests on pieces of journalism or literature are subjective and should not be used as a pretext for censorship".

However, in the past two years, satire has become a fertile ground for censorship for a regime prone to gaffes, such as most recently promoting the Sharm El Sheikh airport chief days after the Russian plane crash that claimed 224 lives. Bassem Youssef, known as Egypt's Jon Stewart, had his satirical weekly programme El Bernameg stopped and has now gone into exile for what he deems political reasons.

Last month, a military court sentenced a Facebook user to three years for posting a Photoshopped image of Sisi with Mickey Mouse ears. He was charged with the attempt to overthrow the regime.

"It seems that things are at the worst point they've been in decades," says Elliott Colla, a professor of Arabic literature at Georgetown University.

"It seems that censorship of literature is best understood as a barometer of regime confidence. The more confident a regime is, the less likely it will engage in ridiculous things like censoring Naji's novel."

He compared the current moment of censorship to repression after Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed power in the 1950s and the backlash against student and labour activism in 1968. He also noted that there are many bodies that can enforce censorship of material in Egypt.

"There are multiple, overlapping offices of censorship in Egypt within the Ministry Of Culture, Al-Azhar (Sunni Islam's highest religious authority), Ministry Of The Interior. It's one thing to work against a censor, it's another to have to wander through a maze of bureaucratic authorities pursuing various aims."

Ahmed Naji
Ahmed Naji will be tried for publishing explicit materials and offending public moralsAhmed Naji

Naji's novel, which was published in Beirut in August 2014, had passed censors in Egypt without issue and has been on sale since. The editor in chief of the novel's publisher has also been referred to court, even though it is state-run and funded.

In the week leading up to his British visit, Sisi had chided journalists publicly for being too critical of his government's conduct in the past year, saying that he would complain to the Egyptian people about them.

Naji, who is working on a collection of short stories to be published next year, sees his case as a continuation of a tactic employed by the state against many authors as early as the turn of last century. He does not see the current government as one in control, rather than one beset by competing political factions. He sees that some judges are open-minded in a judiciary overall characterised by corruption and infamous verdicts, such as the long running Al Jazeera trial.

"There are sects and tribes fighting and killing each other and we are in the middle," Naji said.

"The judiciary as an institution is repressive and immoral. I don't see just a fragile state − I don't see a functioning state in all honesty."