Four More Years of Censoring Culture in Egypt

The current president has presided over a purge of liberal expression. And he’s nearly guaranteed to win another term this week.

Cairo-based artist Chanel Arif uses humans and their surroundings as her canvas.
Cairo-based artist Chanel Arif uses humans and their surroundings as her canvas. (Sherif Fahmy / Reuters)

CAIRO—One evening last month, Russian belly-dancer Eicatrina Andreeva was performing at a floating nightclub on the Nile River. Toward the end of her act, her manager noticed a middle-aged man in a leather jacket who stood out against the touristy crowd. “I knew he was a cop straight away,” the manager said. “I begged him, ‘Please, just let her finish her set. Give her 15 minutes.’” The policeman obliged. When Andreeva stepped offstage, she was taken to jail.

Her four-day detention and subsequent fine were based on accusations of “inciting debauchery” after a video of a previous performance—during which she wore a revealing outfit—went viral. (This charge was later conflated with irregularities in her work permit.) Now free and still in Cairo, Andreeva may have got off lightly. Her manager, who asked not to be named for fear of attracting unwanted government attention, said that in his line of work there’s always been tension with the authorities, but that “it’s increasing these days.”

The current president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seeking reelection this week in a race he’s nearly guaranteed to win. Since he took power from the Muslim Brotherhood in a coup in 2013, the number of journalists and activists in jail has spiked as dissent against his regime has been roundly crushed; many of Sisi’s would-be presidential challengers are now in detention or awaiting trial. But the president hasn’t stopped at stamping out voices critical of him—he’s gone after apolitical liberal expression, too. Egypt has witnessed a crackdown on the arts, including dance, music, comedy, and theater. “There has been an increase in repression and attempts to essentially clamp down on free expression,” said James Lynch, the deputy director of Transparency International, an organization that has tracked Sisi’s career since before his first election in 2014.

Artists like Andreeva are being swept up in the assault. Although this was not unheard of under former president Hosni Mubarak, the Sisi regime goes after a wider array of people on the fringes of mainstream society. It has launched campaigns against LGBT people, atheists, and the country’s Shia and Baha’i minority communities. The current president is a lot more focused than his predecessor on currying favor with the masses—including religious supporters of his ousted Muslim Brotherhood rivals.

In a religious country like Egypt, the state has political points to gain by showing off its conservative credentials. So, whereas locking up popular artists on apparently flimsy pretexts may seem like a bad move in an election year, Timothy Kaldas, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said it’s quite the opposite: Such arrests are part of a concerted effort on behalf of the Sisi regime to play a more active role in policing liberal society. “Doing this allows them to make that statement: ‘Just because we’re not Brotherhood, doesn’t mean we don’t care about our traditions or our values,’” Kaldas explained.

Having seized power in the wake of a second popular revolution, the military-led government under Sisi is wary of the Egyptian population in a way the Mubarak regime wasn’t. “Everyone knew that everyone hated Mubarak in 2011,” Kaldas said, “but people figured it didn’t matter.It turned out that it did—Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising that year. “What happened in 2011 gave people in the state the impression that it could matter that everyone hates you. And so Sisi would prefer to avoid that. I think there’s more pressure to show off.”

Yet the turmoil of the post-revolutionary period hasn’t exactly created the conditions for a happy population. Sisi is ending his first term with Egypt suffering from double-digit inflation, a hugely devalued currency, and sky-high unemployment and poverty levels. Faced with this intimidating list of economic problems, the state seems to have focused even more effort on the low-hanging fruit of policing liberal society, as Kaldas put it, “to show you’re doing something. It will make headlines and it’s something that the people will talk about instead of inflation for a bit.”

But while such actions no doubt serve to reassure the country’s more conservative elements, it’s too cynical to see this as just playing to the gallery. Despite its fervent opposition to Islamist rule in Egypt, the military-led government in Cairo is itself far from secular. “I don’t think there’s any reason to think that military rule is much less conservative than the Islamists,” said Kaldas. Sisi is overtly pious, with a subtle mark on his forehead from frequent praying face-down on the ground. Indeed, it was arguably Sisi’s religiosity that led the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi to first assign him to the prominent post of defense minister. “Your average person in the Armed Forces or the security apparatus has a pretty conventional patriarchal and conservative view when it comes to religion,” said Kaldas.

Ever since he became president, Sisi signaled that this is how things would be under his administration. Shortly after Sisi took office, Bassem Youssef, the nation’s foremost satirical TV host, often referred to as the Jon Stewart of Egypt, announced the end of his nightly show. Youssef, who had previously been reluctantly permitted to broadcast his show under Morsi, cited concerns for his family’s safety, telling reporters at the time: “The present climate in Egypt is not suitable for a political satire program.”

Since then it’s become clear that other comedians face censorship in Egypt, too. Last month saw the cancellation of Saturday Night Live Arabia, an Egyptian sketch show based on the American version, but purged of all political references. Egypt’s media-regulation body accused it of violating “ethical and professional criteria” through repeated “sexual phrases and insinuations.” The creators of the show declined to comment for this story.

Singers have also become targets. A famous Egyptian singer who goes by the name Sherine made headlines late last year after a recording emerged of her joking about one her songs, “Have You Drunk From the Nile?” in which she questioned the wisdom of drinking from a river that has historically suffered from water-borne parasites. “Drink Evian instead,” she said with a laugh to a group of fans in the United Arab Emirates. In February, these comments earned her a six-month prison stretch for insulting the country and, according to the court, “spreading fake news.”

In December, a lesser-known performer, Shyma, was sentenced to two years for her music video “I Have Issues,” in which she appears eating fruit suggestively. Another singer was picked up in January after releasing a song titled after a play on words with an Arabic profanity. Both stand accused of “inciting debauchery and immorality.”

And this month, hours before the opening performance of “Before the Revolution,” a play intended to be showcased as part of Cairo’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, director Ahmed al-Attar called off the show in the face of government censorship. His decision followed the arrest of six people earlier this month for a play that was deemed to be insulting to the security forces.

With the Sisi regime all but certain to take power for another four years this week, the future for liberal artistic expression in Egypt looks bleak. For many Egyptians trying to maintain their culture, everyday life is marked by the need to watch over one’s shoulder for who may be listening in. “Nobody’s safe anymore,” Andreeva’s manager said. “Nobody.”