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Worldcrunch

If Egypt Loses Its Sense Of Humor

Essay: Egyptian comedian Adel Imam faces potential jail time for a series of allegedly “blasphemous” films from two decades ago. Much is at stake as the forces of free expression and pious Islam face off in "Arab Spring, the Sequel..."

Article illustrative image Partner logo A poster for the 1994 Imam film Al-Irhabi (The Terrorist)

CAIRO - There’s a reason why Egyptian comic actor Adel Imam might soon find himself in a jail cell. It wouldn't be for his role in a slapstick prison-set comedy, nor is it for his much-rumored ties to the Mubarak regime, which have so far failed to save him from his current woes.

Instead, the Arab world’s most revered comedian faces potential jail time for a series of supposedly “blasphemous” films — released two decades ago.

In February, a case was filed against Imam by Arsan Mansour, a lawyer who accuses the actor of consistently “slandering Islam” — as well as several of its “symbols,” such as the jilbab and, in all seriousness, the beard — in his films “Al-Irhab wal-Kabab” (“Terrorism and Kebab”), “Al-Irhabi” (“The Terrorist”) and “Teyour al-Zalam’’ (“Birds of Darkness”). The films were released in 1992, 1994 and 1995, respectively.

While the three films did generate some controversy upon their original release, this delayed legal reaction is being seen by most as having little to do with any alleged onscreen blasphemy, and more to do with the changes sweeping the nation.

Imam’s particular brand of “satire” has never been particularly witty or insightful, his punch lines usually stemming from the broadest and most obvious condemnations of easy targets, predominantly corrupt officials and religious fundamentalists. The fact that he has been able to build a career out of nudging sacred cows has in recent years led to speculation that the comedian was little more than a puppet of the Mubarak regime — yet his popularity has never been in question.

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His films and plays continue to dominate at the box office, and he has come to be regarded as one of the last bastions of “clean,” or moral cinema. That has not saved him, however, from what might be the exploitation of new freedoms for the sake of settling old, personal scores. Or worse, it could be the first stages of an alarming new trend.

“On a personal level, I find it hard to be surprised by any of this,” sighs Gamal Eid, the human rights lawyer spearheading Imam’s defense team. “Our society has always had a significant amount of conservatives who, in these current circumstances, saw an opportunity and took it.”

From a purely legal perspective, however, Eid says he's “shocked that the issue has gotten this far.” The case’s second court hearing session was held earlier this month.

“These films are at least 10 years old. Why has it taken so long to complain about them?” he asks. “The law recognizes that works of art cannot be dealt with in this manner,” Eid asserts. “Furthermore it is in no way legally permitted to take an individual to court based on statements made by them within the fictionalized context of a movie.”

The real problem, Eid insists, is the chilling effect the case has already had. Over the past two months, three major film and television productions have been shut down for supposedly violating Sharia. Cases similar to the one against Imam have also targeted acclaimed filmmakers like Sherif Arafa and Wahid Hamed.

Legally, Egypt is currently in a state where anything goes — as indicated by either the increasingly lawless streets, or a Parliament now firmly in the hands of a supposedly outlawed organization.The pre-revolutionary culture scene was schizophrenic — eagerly promoting cheap sexual ploys to the public while simultaneously preaching strict moral values, espousing the importance of freedom while somehow convincing an entire nation that freedom has a limit. But now, with far less in the way of regulators or even a clearly defined set of guidelines, the cultural landscape is up for grabs. 

Revolutionary demands

“These cases are all purely political issues; they have nothing to do with either religion or freedom of expression,” states Abdel Galil al-Sharnouby, a former Muslim Brotherhood member, who now is part of a free-speech collective, Egyptian Creativity Front. “The real purpose behind all this is to further fragment public opinion and introduce new ‘controversial’ issues in order to distract from more significant matters. This is exactly the type of stuff the Mubarak regime used to pull.” 

According to Sharnouby, these are the initial stages of a systematic attack on the values upheld by the revolution.

“Freedom was one of the demands of the revolution, demanded even before social justice,” he says, referring to one of the key chants of the uprising. “So, as an act of revenge, those sympathetic to the former regime are attacking all our freedoms now, and doing so under a religious pretext to play on widespread fears of a strictly Islamic state.”

Sharnouby, who is also a screenwriter and a film critic, insists those fears are completely unfounded.

“I was simultaneously involved in both the Muslim Brotherhood and the arts,” he says. “I can assure you, the Brotherhood is not seeking to ban the arts or reshape the cultural scene according to their limited understanding of it.”

Words that will bring comfort to few — especially when scenes like MPs interrupting parliamentary sessions with a call for prayer, or physically preventing acclaimed filmmakers from filming inside a mosque, are not uncommon. Sharnouby shrugs these incidents off, insisting that “the Brotherhood realizes now — for better or worse — that the Egyptian people will never again give up their freedom, and if the organization wishes to survive, they must learn to adapt to a rapidly changing world.”

As for Imam, his lawyer says the actor is “still in the country,” contrary to previous reports, and that he “is prepared to appeal the court’s decision, should he be found guilty.” A verdict is expected on April 26.

Read the full article at Al Masry Al Youm

 

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