As the climate for artists, journalists, intellectuals and regular citizens who wish to criticise, politicise or simply satirise current Egyptian values and society gets more heated and dangerous, a troupe of young comedians has become the latest group to be targeted by authorities. Freemuse stringer Shahira Amin reports on the recent developments in the deteriorating state of freedom of artistic expression and speech in Egypt.
“The police are thugs!” “The Revolution continues!” “Erhal! Leave!”
Such were some of the revolutionary slogans chanted by thousands of Egyptian activists who took to the streets on 15 April 2016, protesting the handing over of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. Police arrested dozens and fired tear gas, reported New Jersey Herald on 15 April 2016.
Protests continued ten days later on 25 April 2016 where similar slogans were chanted and security was stepped up, reported BBC on 25 April 2016.
The slogans were later echoed by Egyptian all-male satirist group Atfal al-Shawarea (Arabic for Street Children) in a video clip posted on their official Facebook page on 2 May 2016, where the group criticised the crackdown and ended the clip by declaring the revolution continues and saying: “Erhal” (Leave).
In the video, recorded on a street in Cairo in the group’s trademark selfie style, the six young comedians (aged 19 to 21) also poked fun at supporters of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, mimicking the latter’s oft-repeated, anti-revolutionary rhetoric: “Incidents of police brutality are isolated cases”; and “President Sisi, the Lion of Egypt, has rescued the country; look at what’s happening in Iraq, Syria and Libya”.
The tongue-in-cheek comments were made in a tone of voice traditionally used in cartoons dubbed in Arabic. The comedians abruptly switched to an angry tone, parroting the lyrics of a famous Fairouz song that warns: “The blazing fury is inevitably coming” – a clear reference to a widely-anticipated new wave of uprising in the country as anger mounts over increased repression, police brutality and a foreign currency crisis.
In another video posted four days later on their Facebook page, the satirists backtracked apologetically:
“Sisi is our President; long live the June 30 Revolution”, they chanted, again lampooning Sisi supporters.
In the video, a sad premonition of what was to happen a few days later, the satirists also re-enacted an arrest scene with “suspects” defending themselves against false charges: “I’m not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. What foreign funding? I don’t even have enough money to buy food,” the comedians scoffed in unison.
Little did they know at the time that they themselves would be prosecuted 48 hours later on accusations of “posting videos that incite protests” and “insulting state institutions”.
Authorities arrest satirists
In the early hours of 7 May 2016, 19-year-old Ezz el-Din Khaled, an art student and the youngest member of the group, was arrested at his home, reported Mada Masr on 8 May 2016. Prosecutors ordered a four-day detention pending investigations.
Two days later, on 9 May 2016, a Cairo Misdemeanor Court ordered his release on 10,000 Egyptian Pounds (approx. $1000 USD) bail. The decision was however, appealed by the prosecution and Khaled was forced to remain in custody until the next day when the appeal was rejected by the court and he was released from custody on bail, pending trial.
Four other member of the group – Mohammed Adel, Mohammed Yehia, Mohammed Gabr and Mohammed Desouki – were also arrested late on 9 May 2016, reported BBC on 10 May 2016. The sixth member of the group, Mohammed Zein, remains free and has not been detained.
The four members, who were apprehended at their friend’s house in the low-income Sayeda Zeinab district in Cairo, have received orders to remain in custody for 15 days of pre-trial detention, pending investigations, reported Mada Masr on 11 May 2016.
The charges against the five members include “instigating a revolt against the government”, “forming a group aiming to challenge the principles of the state and ruling authorities”, and “disseminating false information that disturbs public peace”.
Speaking to Freemuse over the telephone on 10 May 2016, Mahmoud Othman, the lawyer representing the Street Children group, said: “While the Court has ordered Ezz el-Din Khaled’s release on bail, we can never be sure what will happen tomorrow. The charges are silly. They should all be released.”
Who are the Street Children?
The members of the Street Children group had met some months earlier at a theatre workshop organized by Jesuites, a non-profit organization that works to promote culture and the arts, and decided to make theatre “more accessible to the public through street art”, explained group coordinator Mohamed Adel.
“Our work is a compilation of ‘sketches’ made up of quotes and song lyrics tackling social and political issues in a humorous way,” he told TV presenter Liliane Dawoud in the group’s debut television appearance in late January 2016 on the privately owned satellite channel ONTV. “We have given street performances in various parts of the country travelling to remote villages to share our humour.”
Amid a wave of nationalistic fervour sweeping the country since the overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, their humour was initially taken with a grain of salt; but that has changed.
“In the current Orwellian atmosphere, many are sceptical. Our critics – those who perceive themselves as the ‘true patriots’ – often tell us ‘it’s not the right time for satire’”, Adel lamented.
It was not until they started posting their video clips online that the group gained a large following. They have since seen a steady increase in their popularity and have 300,000 followers on Facebook. Their April 2016 video on the handover of the two islands to Saudi Arabia has two million likes and had been shared by 50,000 viewers, however as of 11 May 2016 their Facebook page had been suspended.
In the ONTV interview, Adel also complained that “there is widespread fear in the society; new ideas and initiatives are usually rejected, with critics piling pressure on artists and writers to conform to the accepted norms”.
Asked by presenter Liliane Dawoud about the comedians’ future plans, Adel unexpectedly replied: “Prison”.
Shocked, Dawoud asked: “But why? What have you done?”
Shrugging his shoulders, he said: “We’ve done nothing wrong, but that’s where all young people in Egypt end up”.
The rise of a choking police state
The arrest of the young comedians has raised concerns among rights advocates about the stifling of free speech and freedom of artistic expression in Egypt amid a worsening security crackdown on dissent in recent months.
In a statement published on its website on 10 May 2016, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information decried the comedians’ arrest and detention, calling it “a flagrant violation of the right to freedoms and a disrespect for the constitution.”
The organisation, whose Chairperson Gamal Eid himself faces prosecution on charges of receiving illegal foreign funding, reminded authorities that Article 67 in the constitution stipulates that freedom of literary and artistic creativity shall be guaranteed for everyone and that the state shall commit to protecting such freedoms. Eid added that the young satirists had not incited violence and hence, there was no justification for the police raid on the comedians’ homes.
The prosecution of the five comedians follows the conviction of author Ahmed Naji in February 2016 on the charge of “violating public modesty”. Naji was sentenced to two years in prison after his initial acquittal for allegedly using “sexual explicit” content in his novel ‘Use of Life’.
The widely publicized case provoked an outcry on social media networks, which included a trending Arabic hash tag that translates into #CreativityOnTrial highlighting his case, and a petition signed by intellectuals and artists worldwide for his release.
With no signs that the authorities would ease the crackdown on dissent – at least for now – it appears there is no end in sight to the jailing of artists, journalists and intellectuals in Egypt.
This story was written by Freemuse stringer Shahira Amin
Photo courtesy of Atfal al-Sharawea (Street Children)
» Mada Masr – 11 May 2016:
Member of satirical troupe released, 4 others to be detained for 15 days
» The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information – 10 May 2016:
Sarcasm is not a crime … free “Street Children” band
» BBC – 10 May 2016:
Egypt satirical group ‘arrested over insulting video’
» Masress.com – 10 May 2016:
More members of online Atfal al-Shawarea band arrested
» Mada Masr – 10 May 2016:
Update: More members of online satirical troupe arrested
» Mada Masr – 8 May 2016:
19-year-old actor arrested from home for online videos
» BBC – 25 April 2016:
Egypt unrest: Sisi warns over anti-government protests
» New Jersey Herald – 15 April 2016:
Egypt protests after el-Sissi gives islands to Saudi Arabia
» Daily News Egypt – 31 January 2016:
Professional syndicates continue confrontation with Interior Ministry
» YouTube – 29 January 2016:
‘Street Children’ group – a combination of singing, acting and comedy
» Mada Masr – 19 November 2015:
Scholars worry free expression under threat in Sisi’s Egypt
» Artsfreedom.org – 23 February 2016:
Egypt: Author imprisoned for ‘violating public modesty’
» Artsfreedom.org – 25 January 2016:
Egypt five years after the revolution: Artistic freedom is stifled
» Artsfreedom.org – 22 January 2016:
Egypt: Film producer sentenced to jail and fined for “indecency”