Egypt five years after the revolution: Artistic freedom is stifled

25 January 2016


In the wake of a security clampdown on free expression since the military takeover of the country in July 2013, rights advocates lament that the space for free artistic expression and creativity has diminished in Egypt as restrictions on art and literary works that address politics, sex and religion, remain firmly in place. 

By Shahira Amin, reporting for Freemuse from Cairo, Egypt


The overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi by military-backed mass protests in Egypt in July 2013 raised Egyptians’ hopes for greater freedom of artistic expression, long constrained by censorship and the repressive policies of successive regimes. Rights activists had hoped that replacing the Islamist President with a non-Islamist ruler would auger well for artistic freedoms and free expression in the country. The adoption of a new, ‘more progressive’ Constitution in early 2014, guaranteeing freedom of thought and opinion bolstered their optimism.

Article 65 in the 2014 Constitution grants citizens the right to express their opinions verbally, in writing, through imagery or by any other means of expression and publication. Another article guarantees freedom of artistic and literary creativity stating “the state shall encourage arts and literature, sponsor creative artists and writers and protect their productions, and provide the means necessary for achieving this end.”

Despite the more progressive legislation, artists and writers have faced multiple challenges over the past year including intimidation, arrests and detention, strict censorship of their work and difficulties in finding the space to exhibit their artworks.


Book burning
Of all the attempts to stifle free artistic expression in the past year, one particular incident stands out as the most horrific and controversial of all, sparking outrage in literary circles and sending shockwaves across the globe. In April 2015, images of government officials presiding over the burning of books in a school yard in Giza went viral on social media networks, earning wide condemnation from rights activists who described the act as ‘barbaric’, ‘backward’, and ‘intolerant’.

Rights advocates also decried the act as “reminiscent of Nazi Germany” (in reference to the Nazi takeover of Germany when books of Jews, communists and socialists were burned because they were perceived by the Nazis as a serious threat, reminding the authorities of the famous saying by German author Heinrich Heine (1821) that “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”

Among a total of 82 books that were burned in the schoolyard was a translated version of J. Christopher Herold’s Bonaparte in Egypt, and Abd ElRazzak ElSanhuri’s book, ‘The Foundation of Governance in Islam’. Known as the Father of the Egyptian Constitution, El Sanhuri was among the earliest lawmakers in the Arab world to attempt to modernise Islamic Sharia Law.

In a message posted on his Twitter account, novelist Ibrahim Abdel Maguid chided Education Ministry officials over the incident.

“Bonaparte in Egypt is one of the best European books about the French expedition to Egypt but who at the Ministry would understand that?,” he wrote.

Education officials involved in the book burning incident meanwhile, argued that the books “incited violence and hatred.” Dr Bothaina Kishk, the head of Giza’s education directorate, responsible for the crime insisted she was simply following “security orders that entail getting rid of books that foment violence or run counter to the principles of moderate Islam.”

While Kishk was referred to an internal investigation at the Education Ministry, critics said the interrogation was an attempt by the Ministry to save face as the book burning incident was a major source of embarrassment for a government that is trying to portray a secular, modern image and position itself as “guardian of democratic principles”.

In June 2015, a few weeks after the book-burning incident, the government announced it would purge libraries and mosques of books that ‘promote extremist views’ and/or ‘incite violence’. While the decision has been welcomed by some liberals in the society, opponents argue that the act of ‘cleansing’ may differentially affect writers sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood – designated by Egypt as a terrorist group – limiting their freedom of expression. Their concern is that cultural expression perceived as being linked to the outlawed group may be construed as illegitimate ‘propaganda’ and hence outside of the protection of freedom of expression and the arts.


‘Walls of Freedom’ confiscated
Earlier in 2015, the confiscation of hundreds of copies of the book ‘Walls of Freedom’ documenting the graffiti art of the 2011 Revolution, stirred wide controversy and was “another blow to artistic freedom of expression,” free expression advocates lamented. The privately owned Al Masry Al Youm newspaper reported in February 2015, that customs officials at the Port of Alexandria had seized and confiscated 400 copies of the book on orders from the Public Prosecutor.

Sherif Rizk, the General Manager of the book’s distribution company, Dar El Tanweer was summoned for interrogation at the Public Prosecutor’s Office. He told the independent Mada Masr newspaper that he believed someone had filed a complaint about the book at the Prosecutor’s Office, noting that the book had been approved by the Censorship Board and was already available in local bookstores. Denying that the book instigates revolt as was claimed by some officials, he decried what he called “the informants’ culture prevalent in Egypt.” Ahmed Selim, the Head of the Publications Censorship Authority meanwhile, argued that the incident was not about censorship but rather, about lack of storage space and unpaid fees.

Co-authored by Don Karl and Basma Hamdy and published in Germany, the crowd-funded book depicts the street art of the revolution, including the murals on the walls of

Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo and other art works by renowned graffiti artists such as Ganzeer and Ammar Abu Bakr.


Erasing history told by street artists
Part of the graffiti painted wall on Mohamed Mahmoud Street was demolished by workers in November 2015 in what many believe is part of a wider attempt by the authorities to erase all traces of the 25 January 2011 Revolution. Street art had flourished in the months after the 2011 mass uprising, but for the sake of their security, many of the graffiti artists who participated in the short lived street art movement, chose to remain anonymous, signing their artworks using nicknames like Ganzeer and Kaiser. Their fears were justified; street art has once again been criminalised in Egypt with the risk of a four-year prison sentence and a lofty fine for violators.

Graffiti artist Ammar Abu Bakr, who hails from Luxor has persistently been harassed by the police and has been arrested twice since the 2011 uprising. In November, he was arrested by police after a street performance in Borsa, downtown Cairo. While he was released after interrogation, his arrest sent a chilling message to other graffiti artists to cease their work.


Public morals
In a move seen by intellectuals and rights advocates as part of a wider clampdown on artistic expression, a writer and a journalist have also faced prosecution for publishing “sexually explicit material that violates public morals.” Novelist Ahmed Naji and the Editor in Chief of the state owned literary magazine Akhbar El Adab, Tarek El Taher were referred to a criminal court in November after an excerpt from Naji’s novel ‘The Guide for Using Life’ was published in the magazine on August 14. The legal complaint against them was filed by a citizen who claimed he became ‘severely ill’ upon reading the article in the magazine.

Printed in Beirut, Naji’s book had been approved by the Censors and was already available in local bookstores where it had been rated among the bestsellers. The plaintiff’s lawyer however, complained that the excerpt from the book published in the magazine was ‘unfit’ for a state sponsored publication. The trial, triggered outrage in literary circles. It also prompted a social media campaign in solidarity with the defendants with an Arabic Hash tag that translated into #Against The Trial Of Creativity. Several prominent literary figures appeared in court as defence witnesses, arguing that punishing artists for their work would stifle artistic creativity and free expression.

Fortunately, earlier this year a Cairo Court acquitted both the novelist and the editor. Rights advocates hailed the ruling on 2 January 2016 as a major victor free expression. Many had feared that Naji would be convicted like author Karam Saber who, in the summer of 2014 was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of promoting atheism for his collection of short stories published under the title ‘Where is God?’


Constitution with loopholes
While the Constitution does guarantee freedom of artistic expression, loopholes remain in Egypt’s legislation, which allows for the imprisoning of artists and citizens on the charge of ‘contempt of religion’.

Article 98 of the Egyptian Penal Code states that “exploiting religion in spreading either by words, in writing or in any other means, extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting the Abrahamic faiths or sects following those faiths or damaging national unity is punishable by prison sentences of between six months to five years.”

Meanwhile, music and arts syndicate continue to be used as instruments of censorship and policing the arts despite repeated calls by free expression advocates on the Egyptian authorities to abolish prior censorship and allow artists to organise freely. In early 2014, Freemuse submitted a Universal Periodic Review, UPR, on restrictions on artistic freedom – the first such report of its kind – to the Egyptian government with recommendations for legislative and institutional reforms.

Freemuse and the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, AFTE (an Egyptian organisation that documents violations of freedom of expression and defends victims in free expression cases), based the UPR on a 2014 joint study on Egypt’s censorship laws. Among the report’s recommendations was “the replacement of the prior censorship apparatus by an age based classification of artistic works, the reform of the Penal Code to bring it in conformity with international norms that employ the risk of imminent harm as a threshold for the criminalisation of expression, and the repeal of Law 35/1978 on the Federation of Artistic Syndicates.”

According to the UPR, the artistic professional syndicates play a key role in the limitation of artistic expression in cinema, theatre, television and music, thus breaching labour agreements and international guarantees of freedom of association and assembly signed by Egypt. Indeed, Egypt has ratified various international conventions and human rights treaties that protect freedom of expression including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ICCPR and the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).


Belly dancers imprisoned
In September 2015, two belly dancers were charged with ‘debauchery’ and ‘promoting immorality’ in their videos posted on YouTube. A Cairo Court sentenced Soha Mohamed and Dalia Kamal to six months in prison each after pronouncing them guilty of the charges, according to Al Ahram newspaper. A conservative lawyer had filed the legal complaint against them, suggesting they were ‘tarnishing Egypt’s image’.

The belly dancers’ conviction sparked a wave of condemnation by activists on social media networks. In a particularly scathing remark, a critic wrote on her Twitter account, “This is Egypt – not under the Islamist President but under El Sisi!” Other internet activists expressed shock at the verdict, noting “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

The verdict against the belly dancers came hot on the heels of a decision by the Music Syndicate to ban “revealing outfits” by performers in theatres “in conformity with Egyptian traditions and values.” Under the new regulation, performers who do not abide by the modest dress code will be dismissed from the Syndicate and banned from performing in Egypt


Music syndicate is policing music
The latest ban is a flagrant example of the judicial “police status” granted to Egypt’s artistic syndicates, and in particular, the Music Syndicate which has taken on a ‘watchdog’ role, using policing methods to force members into compliance with its strict regulations while ostracising some musicians and performers from the cultural scene altogether.

The latest ‘modest dress code’ regulation follows the ban in 2015 by the State Censorship Board on 20 music videos allegedly containing ‘sexually explicit content’ from Egyptian TV Channels. Some artists like Egyptian singer Ruby and Lebanese performer Haifa Wehbe have had their music videos banned by Egyptian TV channels for being ‘too raunchy’ since they feature pelvic thrust dance moves and ‘revealing costumes’.

The ban on ‘sexy videos’ by the censorship committee at the new Arab Satellite music channel Nogoom has been both hailed and condemned by viewers and listeners. The mixed reaction to the ban reflects the polarisation between Islamists and secularists in Egyptian society, which has deepened since the toppling of the Islamist regime. It is also a manifestation of the increased influence of Wahhabism – a more rigid form of Islam spread by the more conservative Saudi Arabia – on Egyptian culture and the arts. Saudi Arabia has been a staunch supporter of the Sisi regime and is one of the biggest aid donors to Egypt since the return of the military regime to power.


Afraid of Mickey Mouse?
While 2015 has not been a good year for artistic freedom of expression in Egypt, the sentencing to three years in prison of a Facebook user for adding Mickey Mouse ears to a picture of President Sisi, was the ‘icing on the cake’. Few had imagined that posting a comical image on Facebook could land you such a harsh sentence as it did Amr Nohan, whose image was shared virally across the internet.

“No one has a sense of humour anymore? How can anyone feel safe when those protecting them are afraid of Mickey Mouse?” quizzed blogger Mona Daoud on her blog site. However, it is no longer a laughing matter for Nohan who in October 2015, faced a military tribunal for his Facebook creation on the charge of attempting to overthrow the regime.

Furthermore, in December 2015, an Egyptian Satellite Channel showed what Sada El Balad channel’s talk show host Ahmed Moussa claimed were ‘sex pictures’ of film director Khaled Youssef allegedly taken in the latter’s bedroom. The move sparked public outrage among Egyptians who described it as a flagrant violation of citizens’ right to privacy and an encroachment on basic civil liberties.

While Moussa did apologise later, admitting that the photos were ‘fabricated’, regime loyalists on social media said it served Youssef right for his negative portrayal of the police in some of his films. Sceptics believe that the smear tactic is a means of intimidating and silencing critical artists. And it is working!


In the current climate of fear and intimidation, many writers and artists are increasingly resorting to self-censorship, a major threat to the cultural space in Egypt today. Fearful of the consequences of freely expressing their ideas and creativity, many artists and writers have fallen silent. Meanwhile, the state has done little – other than pay lip service to support artistic freedom of expression.

Five years after a Revolution that called for ‘Freedom’, among other things, the necessary conditions for art to thrive are still absent. In the increasingly polarised society, few are willing to embrace diversity of opinion and controversy or to take risks and experiment. In the face of the increased threats to the fundamental rights of free artistic expression and creativity, intellectuals, artists, writers and activists need to robustly defend artistic freedom of expression or otherwise, risk losing it.

On a brighter note, there are still the handful of artists, cartoonists and writers still willing to push the boundaries and to experiment and challenge the public with their creations. What they badly need is support not from the artistic Syndicates whose very existence is a violation of international agreements on free association but from those that decide what goes into the public space, the owners of art galleries, theatres and museums. They are the ones who need to have the courage to support the artists when their work goes into ‘sensitive’ territory.


The photo on top of this page shows, from top left and clockwise: ‘Walls of Freedom’ book, burning of books in a school yard in Giza, Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, singer Ramy Essam performing at Tahrir Square in 2011.

» See more Artsfreedom articles about Egypt



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