Egypt’s Brutal Crackdown on Freedom of Speech Targets the Entertainment Industry

After Egyptian actors Khaled Abol Naga and Amr Waked publicly criticized President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s constitutional amendments and his tight grip on freedom of expression, the Egyptian Actors’ Union revoked their membership and accused the pair of "high treason" in what seems to signal a new target in the government’s ongoing campaign against dissent: entertainment industry unions.
Helal Aljamra
A Yemeni journalist, graduated from Sana'a University, Media Faculty in 2008 and has worked in the Yemeni press since 2007. He worked as an editor for the Yemeni newspaper Al-Nida. In 2010 he was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the same newspaper. He co-founded the Yemeni Parliamentary Observatory and worked as a press editor for the Al Marsad website in 2009. He carried out numerous investigations and worked on the enforced disappearance cases during the Yemeni wars (Saada war 2009-2010), which provoked great reactions as well as press inquiries about Yemeni prisons and abuses. He was awarded the second best news article Award at the 12th session of a competition organized by the Center for Arab Women for Training and Research «Kawther», based in Tunisia in 2014. Participated in a number of specialized training courses in the field of journalism as well as the preparation and conducting of investigations. He holds a Master's Degree in Political Communication from the Higher Institute of Media and Communication in Rabat in 2018.
Egypt’s Brutal Crackdown on Freedom of Speech Targets the Entertainment Industry
Photo credit: Ali Harb/Middle East Eye.

Since the ousting of Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has continued to narrow the scope of freedom of expression to strengthen his tyrannical rule. Repression, distortion, incitement, and censorship are no longer carried out only by security services and the Egyptian authorities. Now, al-Sisi’s regime is also using professional and artists unions to eliminate its opponents and critics in the entertainment industry.

The most recent targets of this new brand of quashing dissent have been prominent Egyptian actors Khaled Abol Naga and Amr Waked.

The most recent targets of this new brand of quashing dissent have been prominent Egyptian actors Khaled Abol Naga and Amr Waked. Having appeared in numerous Egyptian and international films and television series, the two actors were considered the most prominent figures to join the revolution of January 2011 to demand change and the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. More recently, they have come under fire for their vocal political stances, and specifically for their criticism of al-Sisi’s repression of dissidence.

“Constitutionalizing Authoritarianism”

On March 24 and 25, Abol Naga and Waked joined over 100 Egyptians and Egyptian-Americans to attend meetings with members of the U.S. State Department and Congress as part of “Egypt Advocacy Day.”

The focus of the event was to raise awareness of the proposed constitutional amendments in Egypt that would allow al-Sisi to remain in power for 12 additional years, beyond his second and ostensibly last term, which is due to end in 2022. If approved, these amendments would perpetuate military rule, weaken the rule of law, undermine judicial independence, and increase the number of military trials involving civilians.

During the “Constitutionalizing Authoritarianism” congressional briefing, Waked and Abol Naga, along with a number of other human rights advocates, called for “international solidarity with Egyptians currently living under military rule.”

Abol Naga described the proposed constitutional amendments as “shameful” and urged “every peace-loving person” to support Egyptians who are struggling against tyranny “behind bars of fear and actual prison bars,” as reported by Middle East Eye.  He went on to say that for Western officials to meet al-Sisi at various events without discussing the dire human rights situation in Egypt was very disappointing and signaled to Egyptians that “they have been abandoned.”

Al-Sisi’s Quick Payback

Just hours after Waked and Abol Naga criticized Cairo’s violations of human rights and freedom of expression, the Egyptian Actors’ Union expelled them without any investigation or due process. In a statement, it called Waked and Abol Naga’s actions “a great betrayal of the homeland and the Egyptian people,” going on to accuse them of “relying on foreign powers to conspire against Egypt’s security and stability.”

The Egyptian government has also launched a systematic campaign to defame the two actors through national media outlets, describing them as terrorists and traitors, and even resorting to using homophobic slurs against them.

In response to the union’s statement, Waked tweeted the following: “No artist or ordinary citizen should be accused of high treason. The accusation, instead, should be made against an official who has received symbolic payment, or actual cash, to sell out their homeland, breaking their constitutional oath, and allowing other countries to interfere in state policy.”

By exploiting entertainment industry unions, Egyptian authorities seek to silence human rights defenders and undermine every influential or critical voice—both inside and outside of Egypt.

Freedom of Expression Guaranteed by Law

Article 47 of the Egyptian Constitution states that Egyptian citizens have the right to express their views freely and that state institutions should protect and support artists and creative expression. Nevertheless, the treatment that Waked and Abol Naga are currently receiving seems to directly contradict the law.

In a joint statement released in early April, Human Rights Watch and eight other organizations “strongly condemned the Egyptian authorities’ retaliation and intimidation of Waked and Abol Naga,” calling on the Egyptian government to stop all reprisals and persecution of human rights defenders and independent NGOs.

HRW has stated that the defamatory retaliation against Waked and Abol Naga is part of a broader and unprecedented repressive campaign in Egypt that targets fundamental rights and freedoms. However, the exploitation of unions as an extension of the Egyptian authorities is not only limited to the Actors’ Union it also includes the Musicians’ Union.

Entertainment Industry Unions Turned Forces of Authoritarianism

When al-Sisi led his coup against Mohammed Morsi in 2013, he promised the Egyptian people that he would strive to achieve security, economic stability, and democracy. Both Waked and Abol Naga supported al-Sisi’s military coup at the time. But, over the last few years, al-Sisi’s regime has not fulfilled its promises and been a disappointment for many Egyptians.

Al-Sisi has been carrying out a policy of brutality and tyranny against all political factions and dissenters. Followers of Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood Party, political opposition groups, bloggers, journalists, artists, thinkers, and peace activists have been disappeared, arrested, detained, and tortured.

Waked revealed that a military court had sentenced him to eight years in jail on charges of “spreading false news” and “insulting state institutions.” He added that the Egyptian embassy in Madrid had also refused to renew his passport. Using the Actors’ Union as a tool is not the only way that al-Sisi’s regime has been suppressing freedom of expression.

In March, the Musicians’ Union banned singer Sherine Abdel Wahab from performing in Egypt, her own country, and subsequently summoned her for questioning following her “controversial” comments at a concert in Bahrain. The star reportedly told the audience: “Here, I can say whatever I want. In Egypt, anyone who talks gets imprisoned.” The union considered this to be detrimental to national security.

A Human Rights Watch report issued in August 2018 described the events in Egypt as a “campaign to crush artistic freedom.”

A Human Rights Watch report issued in August 2018 described the events in Egypt as a “campaign to crush artistic freedom.” It stated that the “Egyptian authorities have arrested over a dozen people in a crackdown against artists, apparently prosecuting them for exercising their freedom of speech.”

The government has also issued new decrees that significantly limit freedom of expression. Security agencies and newly created government entities have added another level of censorship to silence criticism on television, in movies, theaters, and books, according to the same report.

According to another report by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, the Actors’ and Musicians’ Unions violated Act Number 35 of 1978 on the establishment of trade unions, when disciplinary actions were taken against members without an internal investigation into the charges.

The unprecedented crackdown on dissent indicates that Egypt is slipping even further into authoritarianism. Al-Sisi’s regime has utilized every means possible to silence opposition and to attack anyone who dares to criticize the country and its leaders. Although the world strongly condemns his campaign of silence, whether al-Sisi’s policies of increasingly repressing speech and violating human rights will undermine his bid to further extend his term in office is an open question.