By Eric Garneau
Since the invention of the printing press, the written word has been one of the key ways to sow political unrest among a nation's citizens. It's no surprise, then, that many oppressive leaders do their best to keep supposedly inflammatory literature out of the hands of their people. Such was the case with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, as well as President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.
But times have changed. The first few months of 2011 have seen both rulers ousted from seats of power by an unhappy populace. Concurrently, books that were previously unwelcome have begun to make a return to both countries.
Primarily, the affected texts are political in nature. For instance, La Regente de Carthage, a text critical of Ben Ali's family (his wife in particular), could before be read only furtively. Now booksellers may trade in it freely.
It's a similar story in Egypt, where political tracts once consigned to basements have now made their way into shops and kiosks. In fact, Egyptian publishers are planning a nationwide book fair in Tahrir Square, the site of the famous protests against Mubarak's reign. According to an interview with TheBookseller.com, organizers intend to use the fair to celebrate the 'freedom and revolution' now associated with the Square. 'We are hopeful now that... publishers and booksellers will have more freedom.... There will also be so many stories people will want to tell.'
At least in Tunisia, this newfound freedom applies mostly to existing books. Newly written texts must still undergo mandated censorship. However, in a time of change, what that means is unclear. There's reason to hope that the new Tunisian regime will be far less oppressive when it comes to censoring controversial texts. In the past, the government even blocked books at the printers.
The recent Middle East revolutions are notable for their grassroots quality. People were unhappy, so they decided to do something about it through peaceful assembly. Given that environment, one might imagine that Tunisian and Egyptian citizens are perfectly primed for a free press, where information is allowed to disseminate democratically. Ideally, their new leaders will facilitate this freedom. Books contain information that has power, certainly, but oppressive leaders have proved time and again that withholding that information can have just as powerful an effect, and people won't long tolerate such control.
Learn more about the future of education in Egypt.