It’s been nearly two years since the mass uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, but Egypt’s film makers are still plagued by censorship they say is stifling their creativity. Religion and sex remain high on the censors’ list of “taboo issues” as a tide of conservatism sweeps the country under Islamist rule. The recent rejection by the censorship committee of film maker Amr Salama’s script for a film on sectarianism recently stirred a new wave of controversy, fuelling fears of further restrictions on free expression under new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. Seeking to allay the concerns, Egypt’s newly appointed Minister of Culture Saber Arab has given the green light for Salama’s script, affirming that “no changes are needed”.
Salama’s new film features a Coptic Christian adolescent seeking acceptance from his classmates after being transferred to a public school. Belonging to a different social class, he initially finds it difficult to fit in and decides against revealing his faith for fear of further discrimination. The barriers of class and religion are finally overcome however, as the boy succeeds in winning over his classmates, earning their friendship and respect. It is a story about tolerance and identity, depicting a teenage boy’s struggle to gain approval and overcome social and religious differences.
Arab’s nod of approval for the film came after Salama publicly criticised the restrictions imposed by censors in a televised interview on an independent satellite channel. The Head of the Censorship Committee, Sayed Khattab, meanwhile defended the committee’s decision to ban the film . In a live telephone call to the TV channel, he insisted it was “brutal to show a child being mistreated for his faith”. The committee had earlier cited “incitement to discrimination against Egypt’s minority Christian population” as a reason for the boycott. It had requested that Salama alter the script to focus on class rather than religious differences. The censors also claimed that the script was fiercely critical of Egypt’s educational system, portraying it in bad light. Under Egypt’s censorship laws, film makers are still required to get their screenplay approved before the shooting of the film, which then has to be viewed by censors who decide if it is fit for screening.
In a post on Twitter, Salama stated that he would not make the requested changes but would “keep the original script as is”. In an interview with a local daily, he said his lawyers had advised him against altering the script, saying it was his “legal right to express himself freely”. The real reason for the censors’ rejection of the script, he alleged, was the film’s acknowledgement of discrimination against Copts in Egypt. ”The fact is discrimination still exists,” Salama noted. “It is not a figment of my imagination.”
Egypt’s Christians (who make up an estimated 12 to 15 per cent of the population) often complained of discrimination under President Mubarak. They needed a presidential decree to build or repair churches and said they were not appointed to senior positions in state institutions. Their situation, however, has further deteriorated following the rise of Islamists to power. In the transitional post-Mubarak period, churches have been torched by extremists and many Christian families have left the country to settle abroad, fearing their freedom and their lives were at risk.
In his inaugural speech shortly after his appointment, Egypt’s first democratically-elected President, Mohamed Morsi — who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood — had promised to be a leader for all Egyptians. He had also vowed to appoint a Christian Vice President. Bowing under pressure from the ultra-conservative Salafists, he has instead appointed a Christian Presidential aide — a position that some Christians have said is “largely symbolic and designed to fill a quota of Christians on the President’s advisory team.”
The forced evacuation of Copts from their homes in Dahshur, a village on the outskirts of Giza, and more recently from the North Sinai border town of Rafah (after Christians received threats from extremists ) has fuelled Christians’ fears they were being targeted for their faith in the ”new” Egypt. More recently, two Coptic children — aged 9 and 10 — in the Southern Egyptian region of Beni Sweif were jailed for blasphemy but were released days later after the charges against them were dropped. Meanwhile, Alber Saber, a Computer Science graduate and a Copt-turned-atheist remains behind bars pending an investigation after being accused of allegedly posting the anti-Islam film ”Innocence of Muslims” on a Facebook page he administers. His trial for contempt of religion has been postponed to October 17.
Egyptian filmmakers and others working in the film industry are meanwhile becoming increasingly worried that their freedom of expression may be curtailed under Islamist rule. Many are speaking out against censorship. ”Egypt’s censorship laws remain unchanged,” lamented cinematographer Kamal Abdel Aziz, who heads the National Cinema Center. “Censors should watch films only to determine whether they fall into an unrestricted age category or a restricted one,” he told Index, adding that he looks forward to the day when all censorship is abolished.
The tight censorship isn’t the only concern. A verbal attack on Egyptian actress Elham Shaheen by an ultra-conservative Salafist Sheikh has fuelled fears that Islamists were using methods of intimidation similar to those used in the nineties to force bellydancers and artistes to quit the profession. The Sheikh criticised Shaheen on his show on the conservative TV channel El Hafez, saying she was “cursed and would never go to Heaven”. The insult triggered an outcry from artists and liberals who, considering an attack on art and culture, expressed solidarity with Shaheen in both the traditional media and on social media networks. Shaheen has filed a lawsuit against the Sheikh.
Salama too is threatening to file a lawsuit if the Minister of Culture rescinds on his promise to lift the ban off his film. He said he was ”waiting to see if Islamists really encourage freedom of expression as they claim.”
Journalist Shahira Amin resigned from her post as deputy head of state-run Nile TV in February 2011. Read why she resigned from the “propaganda machine” here.