Ask almost any Egyptian about Abdul Rahnan Abnoudi, and you will be told about the aeedi, a poet from upper Egypt who writes verses and songs in a language street people can understand and appreciate.
"Anybody in a galabiyah knows me," Abnoudi boasts, referring to the loose grown worn by Egypt's commoners and farmers. "I am the king of the floormen."
Abnoudi's earthy poetry also has won him the admiration of President Anwar Sadat, who called him in one play five years ago to praise a book of plaintive verses depicting the sufferings of Egyptians along the Suez Canel during the war of attrition after 1967.
Now, however, Abnoudi is about to win a new distinction. He has been summoned by the prosecutor to explain about a new book of poems, this one published early this year in Beiut and sharply critical of Sadat's peacemaking with Israel and his style of governing Egypt.
An assistant prosecutor Naguib Yunis Hassan, told Abnoudi's wife, Atiyat, that he wants "to discuss with him what he is thinking about the country these days," Hassan indicated in an interview that his summons is for more than a literary chat, however, because an official investigation has been opened against Abnoudi under Egypt's new Law of Shame.
The law, passed last April despite rociferous protests from Egyptian lawyers and writers, prescribes jail terms ranging from six months to five years for some thoughts about Egypt if they are expressed out loud and in the wrong journals. So far, Hassan said, Abnoudi is only being investigated to see whether his poems make it necessary to try him before a "values tribunal" composed, under terms of the law, of a mix of judges and a laymen appointed by the Justice Ministry.
The extrajudical tribunals already have tried several cases of financial malfeasance since the law was promulgated June 15. Yet Abnoudi is the first known case of a writer being investigated for what was published under his signature because it was critical of Sadat and his peace policies.
The law, which was pushed by Sadat himself last spring, is designed to protect Egypt from dishonesty in business and government, attacks on its Islamic traditions and advocacy of "repudiation of religion, moral or national values or urging disloyality to the nation."
The last clause, critics charge, declares open season on opponents of Sadat's vision of Egypt and his policy of negotiating peace with Israel and normalizing relations with the Jewish state after 32 years of enmity.
"It is unconstitutional," complained independent opposition lawyer Mumtaz Nassar. "It means there is no more freedom in Egypt. The biggest shame about the Law of Shame is the law itself."
Nassar was one of a handful of legislators who protested against the bill when it came up for a vote in the People's Assembly last April. Sadat's National Democratic Party holds 361 of the assembly's 398 seats, however, and the law passed overwhelmingly.
But because of the outcry, particularly by the Egyptian Lawyers Syndicate, some of the more stringent punishments foreseen in the first draft were watered down. Indeterminate house arrest, travel bans and property seizures, for example, were stricken from the bill before passage. The law enables "values tribunals" to bar convicted persons from elective office or sensitive government jobs, however, in addition to the jail sentences.
Although syndicate head Mustafa Marei warned before the law was passed that it could return the country to the concentration camp era the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser, even Sadat's harshest critics agree that civil liberties have been enhanced since he took over compared with what Egypt knew before him. At the same time, they argue, the facts fall short of the complete freedom advertised by Sadat and the Law of Shame offers dangerous new legal tools to the government for silencing, intimidating and punishing its opponents.
When he urged his party to draft the law, Sadat made no secret of the fact that among his chief targets were Egyptians who write articles attacking his policies in magazines edited and published in Beirut, London or Paris. There is no chance of such articles being published here because the government exercises strong influence over what gets into print and controls publishing facilities and newspapers.
Abnoudi said in an interview in his Cairo apartment overlooking the Nile that he expressed his opposition to Sadat and the peace initiative with Israel in interviews with two Arabic-language magazines published outside Egypt, Al Watan al Arabi and Al Dastour. But, he added, the summons probably stems from publication by Beirut's House of Literature and Culture of collection of his recent poems entitled "Legal and Illegal."
"I say, mister, to hell with the neighbors," goes an Abnoudi poem that he read at a recent political recital. "I do not care for them."
"You are the sultan," continues the imaginary conversation with a jailer, in a clear allusion to Sadat. "I am the slave. You are the jailer. I am the exhausted one. You are the law. I am the vagabond. But so are you a vagabond."
Despite the tenor of his poetry, Abnoudi said he does not consider himself a political writer, he belongs to the Progressive Unity Rally Party, a neo-Nasserite leftist opposition group, only because its chief helped him out of prison during earlier troubles with his writings under Nasser, he said.
Indeed, he recalled over a beer, it is precisely the traditional Egyptian "values" cited by the law that Abnoudi seeks to preserve. Sadat's alliance with the United States is eroding those values, he charged, just as his peace with Israel is trying to erase the heritage left by Nasserism and a generation of war.
"I am happy to be the first one to be brought to account under the Law of Shame," he said. "Egypt is losing its soul. For the first time you can find peasants who hate their land. It is my job to throw me in jail. To each his employment."