In February 2012, when the Muslim Brotherhood led Egypt following its sweeping victory in the elections a year earlier, the famous actor and director Adel Imam was sentenced to three years in prison. Intellectuals, theater people, journalists and the wider public did not keep silent.
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“We are going back to the Middle Ages,” declared writer Alaa al-Aswany, author of the best-selling novel “The Yacoubian Building.” Others accused the Brotherhood regime of “chopping off the hand of art and gravely damaging the freedom of artistic expression.”
The reason for the indictment was Imam’s appearance in three films that had been released 17 years earlier. These works, according to prosecutor Asran Mansour, constituted an affront to Islam and Islamic clerics.
Though Imam did not spend a day in prison after an appeals court ruled the films contained nothing against Islam, the trial made clear to Egyptian intellectuals that the era of relative freedom of expression under Hosni Mubarak, especially regarding religion, would never return.
No one could have imagined that within a year and a half, President Mohammed Morsi would be deposed and the Brotherhood would be out of power and declared a terrorist movement. No one expected that Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi would seize the presidency, declare a plan to establish a “new Islamic discourse” and permit the renewal of Egyptian drama that depicts clerics as crooks, avaricious types or lechers. But is Sissi’s regime really a festival of freedom for Egyptian drama?
Egypt’s huge film industry is dramatically affected by the identity of the regime and its attitude toward the Islamist movements. Though today filmmakers may criticize religion and its representatives without fear of arrest, to what extent can one talk about freedom of cinematic expression in Egypt?
Religion and cinema in Egypt were not always intertwined. The first feature films between 1928 and 1954 were mainly romances and comedies lacking social or political criticism. In those decades, during which the Muslim Brotherhood was founded and developed, Egyptians worried about other things like the 1947-49 Arab-Israeli war, the British occupation, independence and the shaping of the new state, education, and the peasant farmer class. And of course there was the end of the royal house with the officers’ revolt of 1952.
There was no lack of harsh clashes between the regime and the Brotherhood now etched in Egypt’s collective memory; for example, the 1966 execution of Brotherhood leaders including the highly influential Sayyid Qutb. But unlike later periods, political events did not lead to the profound treatment of religion in cinema.
In 1954 the film “They Made Me a Criminal” was produced. It depicts a religious sheikh as unable to heal the sick, a kind of criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood slogan “Islam is the answer.” That year also saw the release of “Sheikh Hassan,” which depicts the love between a Muslim religious teacher, Hassan, and a young Christian woman, Louisa, a relationship both sets of parents denounce.
At the beginning of the film Hassan’s father banishes his son from his home for smoking hashish; Hassan then smashes his smoking paraphernalia and embarks on a campaign to get his friends to do the same. Hassan becomes a teacher and from there a romance unfolds that ends in tragedy: The pregnant Louisa falls from a ladder and dies.
A bit of criticism for Nasser
At the time, the Egyptians interpreted the film as testifying to Islam’s tolerance and the willingness to overcome differences of religion and let love try to prevail. The regime headed by Mohammed Naguib, who preceded Gamal Abdel Nasser, banned the first version of the film because of harsh criticism by both Muslims and Christians. Only after the director tacked on a few minutes to sort out the religious issues was permission granted to show the film in movie theaters.
Twenty years later, when President Anwar Sadat launched a campaign of reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, cinemas showed films depicting the regime’s cruel treatment of Islamists, leftists, communists and intellectuals. Among these were “Al-Karnak” (1975) and “We the Bus Owners” (1979). These films of course did not criticize Sadat but rather the suffering under Nasser’s rule. “Al-Karnak,” which was named after a café where intellectuals met, even included scenes of sexual assault – for the first time in Egyptian cinema.
But Sadat too was not known for warm feelings about his Islamist intellectual critics and was assassinated by an Islamist, a member of a terror group that had assassinated author and journalist Farag Foudeh and tried to assassinate writer Naguib Mahfouz.
Mubarak, Sadat’s successor, began with a campaign against the Islamist organizations and persecuted the Muslim Brotherhood. He too opened the screen wide to films that depicted the Islamists as enemies of the people. Three films stood out in this genre: “The Terrorist,” “Birds of Darkness” and “Terrorism and Kebab,” all starring Adel Imam. These works depict clerics and Islamist activists as corrupt, lechers and alcoholics who destroy society’s moral values.
Thus, for example, in “The Terrorist” Imam plays an Islamist wounded as he flees a murder scene. He finds refuge with a tolerant liberal family that knows nothing about his past, and their warmth convinces him to change his opinions.
Ultimately he is murdered by his former colleagues because of his criticism of their leader. The information minister at the time, Safwat al-Sharif, said the film “reveals, in a dramatic manner, the internal contradictions within the terrorist movement .... It illustrates that whenever anyone is allowed to see society clearly they give up extremism.” The budget for the film stood at about half a million dollars – a sum the film recouped at the box office in a few days.
In “Terrorism and Kebab,” Imam plays an Egyptian who wants to get his children into another school. The opening scene shows him in an endless line at an office building as the hundreds of angry people seek the door to the office that will deal with their requests. Imam arrives after a wearisome journey but has to wait until the secretary finishes a long phone conversation with a girlfriend and the religious boss completes his many prayers.
In another scene the boss rains curses down on anyone who does not follow religion’s straight path, but he does not stop casting glances at the prostitute played by the famous actress Youssra. This brilliant comedy, which ranked 15th on a list of the 15 best Egyptian films of all time until then, portrayed not only the anger toward clerics but also the feeling of deep frustration toward government officials. During the Arab Spring the film became a symbol of the revolution that erupted at Tahrir Square, which sits at the foot of the building in the film. Paradoxically, Imam was accused by the young people of the revolution of supporting Mubarak and opposing the uprising.
Only the Islamists get bashed
Imam’s trial notwithstanding, even the Muslim Brotherhood recognized the power of film as a propaganda tool, and during the movement’s brief time in power it considered establishing a film industry of its own. It even began to produce a film about its founder, Hassan al-Banna, starring Syrian actor Rashid Assaf, but in the end the idea was shelved.
Later, the hope that Sissi’s government would change the direction of the Egyptian film and television industry and lift political censorship fizzled quickly. In the three years he has been president, Sissi has proved he outdoes his teacher Mubarak when it comes to limiting freedom of expression.
Journalists have been tried for writing critically and “harming national security.” Also, it was made clear to screenwriters and producers that the boundaries of the permissible were narrower than they had been in the past. Also, human rights groups have been shut down and the cinemas have gone back to screening banal dramas and comedies – this time without the famous actors the industry is forgoing to cut costs. Exceptions have been films that depict Islamists as corrupt and terrorists, an image that fits well with Sissi’s war against the Brotherhood and religious terrorism.
The outstanding film of this period is “Al Jazeera 2,” which was produced in 2014 as a sort of sequel to “Al Jazeera 1,” which was screened seven years earlier and describes the takeover of an island in southern Egypt by a band of terrorists. Armed with rifles, the island’s inhabitants fight the gang, and even though the Islamist invaders are better armed, the locals gain the upper hand.
The message is clear: You must fight armed people with arms, even if the enemy speaks in the name of religion or presumes to represent the right way to worship God. You don’t need a microscope to see the connection between the film and the regime’s war against the Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. The praise the government heaped on “Al-Jazeera 2” clarified for every producer, director and actor exactly what kind of film was desirable and what artistic freedom meant.
Lest anyone still had doubts about the new reality, along came the film “Mawlana” the title means an expert on sharia law. The screenplay was written by Magdy Ahmed Aly based on the 2012 novel of the same name by journalist Ibrahim Issa.
The film portrays a television preacher who fires up the public against the sins of this world while taking in vast sums of money in shady deals, messing around with women and serving as an informer for the regime. The film angered the Islamic-law experts at Al-Azhar, the most important religious institution in the Muslim world. The experts thunderously condemned the affront to religion and the personal insult to themselves, as the preacher’s collaboration with the regime implies something about relations between Al-Azhar and the regime.
“This is not the time to show this film,” was the view of the learned clerics from Al-Azhar, but not one filed suit against the film for affronting religion – a provision in Egyptian law that’s usually used to deter not only secular liberals but also critics of the president.
In a 2015 interview, Sissi told The Wall Street Journal that entry into Paradise is not exclusive to Muslims and anyone can get there. And moreover, nowhere is it written that the Muslims must dictate their religion to the world.
So what could be more liberal, free and open than the president’s statements? Anyone who wanted a revolution got it.