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Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 16:44 GMT 17:44 UK
Syrian book cleared of blasphemy
injured student
Religious students pelted the police with stones
By Caroline Hawley in Cairo

An Egyptian inquiry has ruled that a celebrated book which provoked rioting earlier this week is not blasphemous.

A special committee set up by the Egyptian culture minister, Faruq Husni, described the Islamist campaign against the book as a gross distortion.

It says the novel Feast for Seaweed, by Syrian writer Haidar Haidar, has been misunderstood, misquoted and taken out of context.

The allegations against the novel, published in the Islamist newspaper Al-Sha'b, led to rioting on Monday at the Al-Azhar religious university.

They were believed to be the worst student protests in Cairo for almost a decade.

'Deliberate provocation'

The five-member committee said the newspaper had published the views of one of the characters without the responses of another, misrepresenting the overall tone of the novel.

In one particular extract, it says the paper omitted a punctuation mark, so that it appeared that the Koran was described with an obscene word, when this was not, in fact, the case.

The committee described this as a deliberate provocation.

Their report will confirm the view of many secularists who believe the newspaper, which is owned by the Islamist Labour party, mounted the campaign for political reasons in advance of elections due in November.

But the key question is whether the committee's findings will have any effect on the student protesters.

Egyptian riot police remained stationed outside the Al-Azhar religious university. An interior ministry official said they were there to prevent further trouble.

The book that triggered the protest, first published in Beirut in 1983, was released in Egypt in November by an institution affiliated with the Culture Ministry.

The novel's plot centres on two leftist Iraqi intellectuals who fled the injustice of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the late 1970s.

The characters blame political oppression in the Arab world on dictatorships and conservative movements.

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