Art, like science, has no religion. This saying has seemingly lost its meaning completely in recent times in Egypt. Political battles have extended their reach to filming locations and scripts, an encroachment that resulted in the stripping of two exceptional talents of their membership in the Actors’ Union for political reasons – Amr Waked and Khalid Abu Naga.
Are Sissi’s actions that much different from Mubarak’s or was cinema freer in the past?
I do not address here the validity of Amr and Khaled's position regarding their visit to the US Congress in which they opposed constitutional amendments extending President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi’s term limits, but the debate must remain in the arena of art, away from the political arena. For citizens of a state, it is the law that determines whether one has committed a crime or not. And since no judge has ruled what Amr Waked and Khalid Abu Naga did as a crime, I have to regard the Actors’ Union’s statement regarding the incident, which they described as “an act of treason,” with skepticism.
And so I found myself wondering about the future of art. When creatives have to self-censor for the government in order to remain employed this will certainly cast a shadow over their artistic choices. Which led me to wonder, are Sissi’s actions that much different from Mubarak’s or was cinema freer in the past?
Cinema in the era of Mubarak
It began in 2007, when Egyptian cinema directed its arrows at the ruling regime directly and made very serious accusations which I cannot imagine would pass muster in our current era, if one wanted to produce similar works.
First, the conditions in Cairo’s slums were exposed in Khaled Youssef’s film “Heena Maysara” (when things ease up) which did not stop at blaming businessmen as is usual, but put corrupt businessmen and Islamists side by side, inside the dock for the first time. The film’s message was clear: that poverty which in turn produces crime is clearly the result of the regime way of governing the country, which promotes the interests of businessmen. It did not depict the Islamists as scapegoats, but rather as a group taking advantage of the poverty and ignorance in mobilizing thousands of needy people within their ranks.
The film "Al Jazeera" in turn told the true story of a crime family in Upper Egypt, a story the filmmakers’ insisted was fictional but which everyone knew was true and had happened in the province of Asyut. The film examined the suspicious relationship between one of the elite families there and state officials in high positions, which had led to the proliferation of illicit trade in drugs, arms and stolen antiquities.
Finally, there was the film "Chaos," which in 2007 foreshadowed what would happen during the 2011 revolution. The movie chose to represent the Mubarak regime in the guise of a police station chief named Hatem, a corrupt officer who roams the streets declaring his power, forcing everyone to do what he wants, brokering secret illicit deals, and violating every norm that struck his fancy. Unusually for this sort of film, the nemesis that brought him down was not another police officer or a lawyer, but the people, who stormed Hatem’s police station, his seemingly inviolable citadel, killing him after all his allies, including other officers, abandoned him to his fate.
Just two years before the revolution, viewers were shocked by the screening of the film "The Dictator,” which told the story of two sons of the incumbent president, one of whom is obsessed with inheriting power while the other is a disinterested bon vivant more intent on pursuing life’s pleasures. It reflected the general view towards Mubarak’s sons, with Gamal the heir apparent and Alaa, always surrounded by rumors, rarely appearing in public.
Now, imagine something similar to the movies "Chaos" or "The Dictator" being screened, and how the accusations of disturbing public peace would plague the filmmakers. Nobody would be surprised if they were stripped of their membership in the Actors’ Union.
To prove that I am not exaggerating the situation, let's go on a quick tour of cinema theaters in recent years to see the quality of the work dominating the screens, and to see just how much the regime is calling the shots.
Cinema in Sisi’s era
From 2017 onwards, there is a clear trend of filling scripts with heroic representations of the Armed Forces and the police. The problem does not lie with the presentation of the stories itself. On the contrary, films and works highlighting the lives of military and police officers in countering terrorism is a positive thing. But the crisis will arise when these political works become the only ones available to the public.
In 2017 in particular, the box office competition was between "The Cell" and "Arrest Warrant,” both aimed at highlighting the positive aspects of the armed forces in their fight against terrorism, and with Ahmed Ezz and Mohamed Ramadan as heroes of the films.
The public did not find many other options available, as even comedy films were tinged with political satire mocking ISIS, for example, such as the movie "Daddush" and "When a Man Falls into the Quagmire of his Ideas, it Ends Up Being a Farce." And there will be more films that champion the Armed Forces' achievements in 2019 such as another screenplay featuring Ahmed Ezz entitled "The Corridor."
Even last year’s Ramadan dramas, you will find an overwhelming number of soap operas that show the same content as the cinema of the armed forces, such as "Kalabsh," "Daqat" and "Abu Omar al-Masri" about an officer fighting terrorism and a militant who gets arrested.
The previous comparisons show art in Egypt has become more influenced by government guidance rather than artistic taste, and the intimidation of the artistic unions has replaced the desire to produce exceptional work. Nor is this limited to the Actors’ Union – even the Syndicate of Musicians’ biggest concern at present is chasing the singer Sherine Abdel Wahab, sometimes on charges of contempt towards the Nile River, and other times on charges of spreading rumors that those who speak out in Egypt get arrested.
The aim is not to say that any one regime is better than the other, nor do I intend to put a gloss on the Mubarak era.
It’s ironic of course that the visit of Amr Waked and Khaled Abu Naga to representatives of Congress was intended to explain the tightening constraints on certain groups in society, and resulted in the state ending their careers via the union.
The aim is not to say that any one regime is better than the other, nor do I intend to put a gloss on the Mubarak era. But the Mubarak regime was "smarter" in dealing with this sector, perhaps to create an outlet for the masses or even to beautify the public image of Mubarak so he could appear to be a patron of freedom in Egypt by allowing himself to be attacked onscreen. We can see as that Mubarak’s tactics were less obvious than Sisi’s, at least.