Analysis

Sissi's Crackdown on the Arts in Egypt Captured in One Satirical Pop Song

Egypt's artistic community can only recall with longing the time of Mubarak, when the boundaries of freedom of artistic expression were much broader than those instituted in 2013

File photo: Egypt President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi surrounded by top military generals.
AFP

“O mister shiny, brown-faced date. Four years have finally passed in disgrace. For too long we’ve been with that dummy face, O mister shiny, brown-faced date, such a dummy, like a broken vase, a loser all the way, desperate gold-digger. They took our land and promised you a grape, they stole our Nile and gave you a tap. And when you dug a canal it was a trap, to steal our money in just a snap. You’re such a hopeless case, O mister shiny, brown-faced date.”

It doesn’t take too much to realize that the song titled “Balaha” (“Date”), written by the popular Egyptian poet Galal el-Behairy, is aiming its barbs at President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. The land taken from the Egyptians are the islands of Sanafir and Tiran, which Egypt returned to Saudi Arabia, and the canal is the waterway parallel to the Suez Canal that Sissi ordered dug and has turned out to be a white elephant that cost a mint to the Egyptian people, who were asked to donate to fund it. “Balaha” is a fictional figure, not quite normal, who appears in an Egyptian film. It is also Sissi’s nickname.

This satirical song was set to music by the singer Ramy Essam, known for his role in the Arab Spring as a revolutionary poet; his song “Get Out,” directed against former President Hosni Mubarak, became the hymn of the Tahrir Square protesters.

The subversive “Balaha” clip has garnered 4 million views on YouTube and Essam had to flee Egypt for fear he would be arrested for insulting the president. Essam is apparently now in Sweden but he moves around the Arab countries and Europe, where he is very popular.

Since the Egyptian police cannot capture Essam, it has incarcerated the man who wrote the words to “Balaha,” after el-Behairy added insult to injury and published another book of poems titled “The Finest Women on Earth.” To understand the gravity of the offense, one needs to know the story of the great Muslim warrior Amr ibn al-As, who told a group of believers in a sermon that he had heard Mohammed say, “If Allah gives Egypt into your hands, take from it many soldiers. These Egyptian soldiers are the finest soldiers on earth.”

This Muslim tradition from the time of the prophet naturally became a common description of the Egyptian army by its commanders. When the poet Behairy distorted the phrase and turned “the finest soldiers on earth” into “the finest women on earth,” he set out on a dangerous collision course with the army and those who value the prophet’s words. “My blood is boiling and don’t dare tell me this is about freedom of expression,” the journalist Ahmed Moussa shouted on the television show “I Guarantee It,” which he hosts on the Sada El Balad network. “Who approved the distribution of this shameful collection?” he asked. Indeed, an embarrassing question, because the collection of poems appeared at a book fair in Cairo. A party was even organized in its honor where the author signed his books. The terrible offense is two-fold: insulting the army and distorting the words of the prophet, which immediately sparked a backlash that led Behairy to military court in late July, where he was sentenced to three years in prison and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($560).

He was also tried for publishing “Balaha,” charged with harming state security according to the Egyptian anti-terrorism law.

Not only did the song raise the level of censorship in Egypt, which was already tight under Sissi. According to a human rights group, at least 12 artists have been arrested this year, including directors, playwrights and even a belly dancer for what is called “publishing false information” or harming the army and state security.

For example the theater director Ahmed al-Garhy and the playwright Walid Atef were sentenced to a two-month suspended prison sentence for staging a play, “Suleiman Khater,” at the Cairo hunting club. Suleiman Khater was an Egyptian solider who in 1985 killed seven Israelis near the Egyptian-Israeli border. Khater was sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labor, but a year later he was found hanged in his cell. The authorities said he had killed himself and the public believed he had been executed. In this case as well, the authorities woke up too late, because the play had already been seen in the theater in Alexandria two years earlier, and then at the theater in Cairo before the storm that broke in February.

The theater management quickly dismissed the director and the playwright and closed down the play, claiming that it harmed the good name of the army and had not received authorization from the censor. In that same month, Sissi said that any insult to the armed forces was “high treason” and would be punished by a heavy prison term. The sentence meted out in late July was not particularly heavy, but it made clear to the artistic community in Egypt what the new boundaries of discourse were.

These boundaries were dictated by regulations published by Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly last month. They state in part that every cultural or artistic performance, local or international, requires a permit from the Culture Ministry after coordinating with “the relevant authorities” – that is, the intelligence forces. The artistic community can only recall with longing the time of Mubarak, despite the strict censorship laws, when the boundaries of freedom of artistic expression were much broader than those instituted by Sissi since he took control in July 2013.