Artists and writers defy censorship in Egypt
Clampdown stepped up before this week's presidential elections
By Anny Shaw. Web only
Published online: 28 May 2014
Egyptian cultural figures say they will not be silenced as the authorities tighten their grip on freedom of speech. This week’s presidential elections were extended until Wednesday 28 May because of low voter turnout, with Abdel Fattah el-Sisi favoured to win. Sisi, a former military chief who led the July 2013 coup to overthrow the then president Mohammed Morsi, has cracked down on Muslim Brotherhood supporters, arresting dissenters and banning the Islamist group from the elections. Hundreds have been killed in protests.
Sisi’s clampdown has now widened to include artists, satirists, film-makers and journalists. In April, the head of Egypt’s censorship board resigned after a Lebanese film, “Sweetness of Spirit”, was pulled from Egyptian cinemas for being too sexually explicit. The Egyptian Creativity Front, which represents the country’s three main artists’ unions, condemned the censorship as “an assault on the freedoms of thought, expression and art”.
Egyptian artists are not unfamiliar with protest. Following the revolution in January 2011, many artists took to the streets to vent their frustration with the deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak. “Art cannot be prevented or limited, and if censorship happens inside galleries then artists will turn to the streets again,” says the Egyptian artist Mina Nasr.
However, a tough new law banning “abusive” graffiti, which was drafted by Sisi in December, means street art is also at greater risk of censorship. Artists could face up to four years in jail if found guilty of creating anti-military murals. International and Egyptian street artists have joined forces in opposition to the measures, creating works in Cairo, Paris and New York opposing Sisi. In April, International Street Artists in Solidarity called on the international community to isolate the ex-military chief. “At present, permits are required for meetings of more than ten people, demonstrations are illegal and the possibility of baseless denouncements of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood means anyone is at risk of being charged and detained,” the group wrote in a statement.
Fatenn Mostafa, the founder of the Cairo-based organisation, Art Talks, says the crackdown has mainly been limited to critics of Sisi, such as the political satirist Bassem Youssef, whose television programme has been suspended until after the elections. However Mostafa says that Egyptian artists, critics and curators will not be cowed by the Egyptian army or the Muslim Brotherhood. “We will continue to stand as robust as ever to protect unequivocally freedom of expression and creativity,” she says. “The number of artists who have now tasted freedom and are willing to fight to maintain it is significant.”
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