Last Friday, a historic book market in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria was destroyed by Egyptian security forces, leaving kiosks in shambles and the streets littered with rare and valuable manuscripts. Political figures and activists were swift to denounce this mindless destruction of Egypt's cultural heritage, demanding that President Mohammed Morsi take action against the governor of Alexandria who ordered the raid. The governor, for his part, deflected the criticism, claiming that the vendors were operating without a permit.
The ransacking in Alexandria represents the latest in a series of attacks on Egypt's intellectual and cultural life that is being perceived as a "war on culture," which, as observers have pointed out, raises serious questions about the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to certain essential characteristics of a democratic political order, such as freedom of expression, thought and ideas. But, importantly, the consequences of these forays into Egypt's creative life reach beyond its borders. Restricting freedom of expression in Egypt could potentially kill Cairo's ambitions to regain its leadership role in the Middle East and its reputation as the cultural powerhouse of the Arab world.