By Amr Khalifa
Originally published 30 Nov 2014 here
In Egypt, the Al-Sisi regime wants opposition pens dry and artist’s mouths shut. Many Egyptian viewers expected Khaled Abol Naga to be more reticent after recently saying “we may soon need to be saying ‘leave’ to Al-Sisi” – those watchers couldn’t be more wrong. In an interview where he held nothing back and predicted the end of Al-Sisi if he failed in his ‘war on terror’, Mr. Abol Naga came out swinging.
For this artist, there is no doubt that “fear is the weapon of our current government” and he has chosen to stand in stark opposition of the current policy. Some actors feel their place is strictly in front of, or behind the camera, but Abol Naga is not among those. For this actor, there is no difference between the two fascisms: Islamist and military. While terming Egypt’s current state a “nightmare”, Abol Naga will not stand by quietly and watch it unfold.
Censorship has blemished journalism, cinema, singing and the art scene, in general, and with increasing ferocity during the tenures of SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces), Morsi and, more so, Al-Sisi. Thinkers and writers, like Belal Fadl, have been blacklisted from the mainstream Egyptian press and had a Ramadan soap opera cancelled from the airwaves, at great financial loss. Deeply respected TV presenters, highly enmeshed within the 25 January narrative, like Reem Magued and Yosri Fouda, have chosen to leave the scene and been sidelined. With mainstream media, both public and private, widely known and understood to be under regime control, the space for dissent grows more miniscule by the day.
Music has also seen slaps across its artistic face: Hamza Namira, another 25 January icon, has been banned by Egyptian radio. Even more incriminating was the reasoning given by radio chairman Abdel Rahman Rashad: “Any performer who criticises the authorities should not be on the airwaves”. During that very same week, radio decided to ban yet another singer, Tamer Ashour, who lambasted Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in a video as a “Pharaoh returned… who calls white pink, while those surrounding him agree in fear”.
So when Khaled Abol Naga spoke out, in such an atmosphere, clearly stating that Al-Sisi’s security option was a failure, it was no surprise when he came under severe attack by mainstream Egyptian media – both TV and print. No one would have faulted him had he retraced his footsteps, as it is explicitly understood that taking such risk could have severe repercussions. But Abol Naga is full of surprises.
“Freedom of expression is under attack. More than we expected even during Morsi. It’s…military rule at its worst,” said Abol Naga exclusively to Daily News Egypt. From Khaled’s vantage point, there is no doubt about what Egypt is experiencing now: “Fascist military-oriented rule.” While analysts and political scientists may quibble about the exact terms to best describe the current Egyptian paradigm: dictatorship, autocracy or fascism; one thing is certain: the current regime likes one voice – its own.
But this bleak reality will not last for long, argues Abol Naga: “Fear is the weapon of our current government. But historically we all know well, fear cannot work for long. And Sisi is facing this, exactly in my opinion, very soon.” The artist is on point with respect to fear, on several levels. The Protest Law has been used as a bayonet to the soul of any dissent in Egypt’s streets. Thousands have been placed under arrest due to this controversial law and tens of thousands more are under political arrest, mostly from the political Islam camp. Even minor recent demonstrations, to commemorate the third anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud battle, are put down with the most terse of methods of the state security apparatus. Planned Islamist demonstrations, for 28 November, termed by the camp as a defence of the Quran and Sharia, were met with live bullets by the Ministry of Interior.
Subtle, the government is not: when Mahmoud Saad, a popular TV host, recently made mention of the 1967 defeat, understandably a sore spot for the Egyptian army and many Egyptians, the very next day when he showed up for work he was prevented from presenting his show. Assisting the government in the construction of this tenor of fear are multiple writers and TV hosts. One of those highly popular hosts Ibrahim Eissa called Abol Naga “a parrot” and labelled Khaled’s statements as “politically and intellectually naïve”. But the attack didn’t have its intended effect, as Abol Naga responded on his Twitter account: “I still respect him even though he and his generation fear us”. The statement is a revealing one. Even though the regime employs the tactics of fear to quell any and all voices of dissent, it is that generation, and that regime that, in fact, fears the opposition and revolutionary voices.
In Khaled’s mind, and artists like him, an artistic vision and “honest artists are always on the tip of change”. Essentially, the work itself doesn’t have to be political in order to have political impact. Art, in this artist’s world, isn’t a blunt instrument to beat the audience into submission with; rather, art is an honest reflection of the artist’s environment. “Being honest to more than that story; to their whole environment, to their future,” elaborated Abol Naga on the artists’ role in a society such as Egypt. In fact, he pointed out, a movie like Microphone– a 2010 production predating the revolution – was prophetic as “it clearly pointed the revolution is coming”. The movie featured a group of underground musicians in Alexandria, rebelling against the status quo, aided in that quest by the lead character played by Abol Naga.
Despite the dark hue of authoritarian rule hovering over Egypt, Khaled Abol Naga remains unchanged in his optimism. Literature is a natural framework for an artist’s outlook and Khaled is no different: “A Tale of Two Cities is a great example of how Cairo… (resonates) as a real epoch of people’s social awakening,” he said. Abol Naga is not alone in his critique of the current Al-Sisi regime and insists that he has received support from the artistic community, some implicit and some explicit. When asked if artists were on his side, he explained “[some] extremely openly, and much more through indirect hidden messages”. In the days preceding and following Abol Naga’s stance, two prominent artists, Khaled Youssef and Wahid Hamed, a director and a writer, previously highly supportive of Al-Sisi, criticised him as well. By no means is the regime teetering, but there is a new and increasingly vociferous tenor of opposition.
The sort of censorship and attacks faced chiefly by Abol Naga, which he is on record as saying he will combat through legal avenues, and his supporters to a lesser degree, is a mechanism of an encroaching fascism. Mohamed Attia, a singer, who was loud in his support of Abol Naga, was also attacked, in newspapers and TV near and far. It is not only the intent of regimes, like Al-Sisi’s, to have hegemonic control over media outlets, but it is equally crucial to intimidate opposing voices to send a message to anyone else considering speaking out.
If the man with the gun continues to turn a deaf ear to the man with the camera it is likely that the cries, like Khaled Abol Naga’s, of “leave” will only multiply. But revolutions are not born of silence; and Abol Naga has promised to be loud, the man with a camera and a voice.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist recently published by Ahram Online, Tahrir Institute, Muftah and Mada Masr