A group of Egyptian education officials carrying national flags gathered in a schoolyard in Giza, not far from the Pyramids, and watched the burning of over 70 books decreed to be promoting religious extremism.
The scene of the book burning was the Fadhl school, one of 147 schools, once owned by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, now designated as a terrorist organisation in Egypt after the ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.
The schools were taken over by the Egyptian Ministry of Education in 2014 with Al-Fadhl being the first to be subjected to a library inspection, according to the website of the state-owned daily Al-Ahram.
Pictures of the literary bonfire were circulated on social media, causing an outcry.
“Book burning in a school yard in the presence of the headmaster and the head of the local education authority with Egyptian flags fluttering amidst the smoke is a fascistic scene par excellence!,” Egyptian political scientist Ahmed Abd Rabou wrote on Facebook.
“This is what is to be expected in the age of enlightenment that we are living in,” Abd Rabbou added sarcastically.
His sarcasm is not lost on Egyptians who remember the religious reform discourse proclaimed by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last year and later by a copycat media.
“Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people…there is a need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam—rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years,” Al-Sisi said in an address in January 2014 shortly before he was elected president.
Throughout history, most official book burnings have been about control to assert what a regime stands for, according to Matthew Fishburn, the author of Burning Books.
This fact is not lost on Sisi’s education officials who carried the national flags during the book fire as if to confer legitimacy on the regime’s anti-Islamist nationalist rhetoric.
To Egyptian nationalists, book burning is a manifestation of a long-overdue policy to stamp out the political and cultural legacy of the Muslim Brotherhood.
They bank on Sisi to purge Egypt’s soul, supposedly corrupted by decades of the Brotherhood’s creeping Islamisation of the public sphere through preaching in mosques and activism on campuses and in trade unions, sports clubs and other social institutions.
Book burning in the school was part of the education ministry’s plan to dispose of schoolbooks banned in Egypt, the head of the Giza education authority Buthayna Kishk reportedly said.
Kishk told the state-owned daily Al-Ahram: “We informed the security authorities and they told us to burn the books”.
"The books had covers and titles of other books that were unrelated to their actual content,” Kishk said. “The actual books promoted violence, radicalism and Muslim Brotherhood ideology.”
A list of the burned books, which circulated on Facebook and was also published by Al-Ahram, appears to include books that are anathema to Islamic radicalism.
“Unbelievable, some of the books are about the dangers of drugs,” exclaimed Ashraf Nour, who posted a copy purportedly of an official list of the burned books, including one entitled “The Drug Trafficker” published by the Egyptian anti-drug council.
Among the texts consigned to the flames is a controversial book titled Islam and the Foundations of Governance, published in 1925. The irony is that in the complex world of Islamic theory this book, which actually supports Sisi’s proclaimed position of separating religion and state, still bears a certain stigma of unpopularity even among non-brotherhood Egyptians. Its author, the late Egyptian Islamic scholar Ali Abd-al-Raziq argued that Islam does not advocate a specific form of government, whether religious or worldly.
“Regardless of the titles of the burned books, the incident is fascistic and ignites fears that it could be repeated in other areas under another guise. Now, I am asking the champions of enlightenment: who is actually sowing the seeds of terrorism?” said Nagwa Badran on Facebook.
The incident was not slow to invite comparison with Nazi book burnings.
"Goebbels of the ministry of education [Buthayna Kishk]," wrote blogger Wael Abbas.
But this analogy may be far-fetched because of the difference in scale between Nazi book burnings—in the tens of thousands--at the behest of propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels and Kishk’s relatively small book fire.
A further twist is that the Egyptian book burning came only weeks after ISIS reportedly ransacked and burned 100,000 books and manuscripts in the central library of the Iraqi city of Mosul.
German poet Heinrich Heine’s saying “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people” may have inspired Egyptian journalist Tamer Wageeh to say on Facebook:
“You people who are fretting over book burning by Sisi’s men and women, please remember that they burned humans nearly one and a half year ago.”
The burning of humans is a reference to the forced dispersal by Egyptian security forces of a pro-Morsi sit-in, which is believed to have killed at least 1,000 people in August 2013.
“It is a shame that you are more troubled by book burning than you were by the burning of humans,” Wageeh wrote.