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Egypt's Vice Police: Advocates Privately Upholding Moral Values

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Wednesday 14 March 201808:41 pm
A few days after the 2007 launch of OTV, then owned by tycoon Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian satellite channel aired the uncut version of American Pie, preceded by a disclaimer that it is not suitable for minors. It was not the only movie aired by OTV uncensored. The following year, the channel broadcasted Don Juan Demarco with all nudity scenes. No legal action was taken against the channel's management. Today, not a single channel would dare to do what OTV did amid a lack of freedom of expression, according to people working in media; everyone is afraid of legal pursuits, mostly led by three lawyers. These advocates are keen to file lawsuits against anyone who would violate what they call the "values and traditions" of the community. They would not hesitate to put people behind bars for breaking social norms, let alone push the boundaries of freedom of expression.

Nabih Al-Wahsh: Celebrity Hunter

Lawyer Nabih Al-Wahsh is specialized in suing artists and intellectuals, accusing them of "threatening and deforming the values of the Egyptian society". Seemingly an attention seeker, he often releases controversial statements to the media, which eventually cost him dearly. Last October, Al-Wahsh got carried away during a TV program while heaping scorn on the in-fashion ripped jeans, saying "when a girl walks about like that, it is a patriotic duty to sexually harass her and a national duty to rape her". On 2 December, he was sentenced to three years in prison and fined EGP 20,000 ($1130) after being found guilty of inciting rape. Before the verdict, he actively filed lawsuits against celebrities. When Dukan Shehata (Shehata's Shop) -- a film by Khaled Youssef starring Lebanese entertainer cum actress Haifa Wahbe -- was released in 2009 Al-Wahsh filed a lawsuit saying its defames Islam and called on authorities to take it off Egyptian theaters. The lawsuit drew the attention of local and Arab media alike. At the time, he became a regular guest at TV talk shows. It seems that he has relished being in the public eye ever since. Eventually, he stopped appearing on TV except when paid. In 2010, he lodged a complaint at the office of the prosecutor general, Egypt's top prosecutor, against actress Ola Ghanem, calling for banning her TV series Al-Aar, or The Shame, because "it incites debauchery and ruins fasting" during Ramadan. Star crooner Tamer Hosni was Al-Wahsh's target on two occasions: once for not fulfilling the mandatory army service, and then for an "indecent" film poster in which he features with actress Mai Ezzedine. He also sued film director Inas El-Degheidy for "inappropriately portraying Egyptian women in her movies", and once again for saying in a TV interview that she had spoken to God in a dream. Al-Wahsh sued actress Abeer Sabry only for taking off the veil, which is not compulsory according to Egyptian law. She told Raseef22 the lawyer was only seeking attention and fame by filing this lawsuit, and also to make some money since TV channels would likely host him for comment. Sabry said she had never met Al-Wahsh, yet she was flabbergasted over his self-proclaimed role as a guardian of morals. Observers and human rights activists believe the regime spurs him to play this role along with other lawyers with the intention of distracting the public from issues that really matter. Lawyer Mohamed Kaoud also highlights that Egyptian courts return verdicts fairly quickly in such trials, yet would take much more time with other more significant cases.

Mahran Following in Al-Wahsh's Footsteps

After Al-Wahsh was sentenced to prison, Ahmed Mahran started following in his steps. No less of an attention seeker, he would usually call journalists to tell them about the lawsuits he filed against celebrities, intellectuals and politicians. He describes himself as a lawyer who "fights debauchery and refuses the spread of vice". In his latest effort, Mahran lodged a complaint at the prosecutor general's office against little known pop singer Shyma over a music video of her Arabic song "I Have Issues" because it was "racy and incited depravity". Days earlier, Mahran in a Facebook post introduced to the public what he called part-time marriage, meaning a married couple would not live in the same house and only get together every now and then. He said this option can be suitable when the husband cannot afford a house, a suggestion that got him in the limelight for a while. In September 2017, Mahran filed a lawsuit against Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila after audience members waved rainbow flags, which express solidarity with homosexuals, during a concert in Cairo. He also lodged a complaint against the sponsor and the organizers of the concert, with the intention to "support the state to uphold moral principles and values and preserve the identity of this nation that has exported Islam to the whole world". Ironically, Mahran filed a lawsuit against a TV series called Mazag El-Kheir -- produced in 2013 and starring actor Mostafa Shabaan -- a month before it was actually aired. He said the show's events, which the lawyer could not have possibly seen, violated the sanctity of Ramadan and would distract Muslims from their religious duties during the holy month. He said in the complaint that drama "has to be based on positive values". Not only does he send his opinions to journalists, but also refers to himself in the third person. In the last anniversary of Egypt's victory of the October War, Mahran sent journalists a message that read: "Ahmed Mahran stated that he had applied to join the army to fight the dark terrorism that is targeting the homeland". On Facebook, he posted a photo of himself while putting his signature to a document supporting the candidacy of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi for a second tenure. When Samir Sabry, another lawyer of the same type, beat him to a lawsuit against star singer Sherine over her joke on how the Nile water is contaminated, Mahran still found a way to be in the spotlight. On TV, he said that Sherine's comments were actually a political joke that cannot be punishable by the law.

Samir Sabry: Against Indecency

Sabry is the third lawyer on this list. His specialty: "public decency". Last November, he filed a complaint at the office of the prosecutor general against TV commentator Khaled Montaser, saying he must be tried urgently for posting on Facebook a photo of The Rape of Proserpina, a large sculptural piece by late Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The lawyer said the post violated public decency and the values and traditions of the Egyptian society. In the same month, Sabry reported The Nile Hilton Incident, a film by Tarek Saleh, to authorities because he said it blemished Egyptian police's image and would cause tourism to take a turn for the worse. He also demanded that authorities issue arrest warrants against all the film's actors in case they come to Egypt. In November 2016, he filed a complaint against Qatari channel Al-Jazeera for airing a documentary named "The Conscripts", saying it insults the Egyptian army. Last June, he lodged another complaint calling for TV series "The Sun Will Never Set", which stars Ahmed Malek, to be taken off air because the actor "insulted" the Egyptian police in what is known as the condemn prank, when he handed out balloons that were actually inflated condoms to policemen. Sabry also reported Farida El-Shobashy to authorities for mentioning on TV late Islamic preacher Mohamed Metwally El-Shaarawy in a way that he deemed inappropriate. He demanded that she get a TV ban. Although many critics say he stands firmly against freedom of expression, Sabry refuted the allegation while speaking to Raseef22, saying the vast majority of the entertainment production is based on indecency, not creativity, which urges him to take action.

Ridiculous Trials

Kaoud says legal advocacy is an honorable profession that should not be used to threaten individuals on the pretext of preserving the society's norms and traditions. "I feel astounded when a lawyer uses the law to chase creative individuals only because he's not happy with what they've done, and at the same time wouldn't utter a word when the subject is a negligent governmental official," he said. Would the lawyers who file lawsuits against artists take action when Egyptians die in governmental hospitals due to dereliction? Kaoud wonders. Has any of them ever taken a look at cases of torture at police stations? Or do they actually try to be more famous and keep the public opinion busy with ridiculous trials? The trio -- Al-Wahsh, Mahran and Sabry -- disguise themselves as defenders of Egypt's reputation while they actually abuse the law to throttle freedom of expression.
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