A smartphone video of Russian bellydancer Ekaterina Andreeva in an Egyptian nightclub caused quite a stir in the country earlier this month. The video was published on social media on February 5, and quickly went viral. The next day, Egyptian authorities threatened to deport Andreeva – and all because of her skimpy outfit. This is by no means the only case of its kind. Bellydancers, often foreign, vie for popularity in Cairo’s nightclubs, while the Egyptian authorities crack down ever harder on such ‘immoral’ activities.

Video of Ekaterina Andreeva during her performance on February 5 at the Nile Dragon Boat nightclub.
 
In the video, Ekaterina Andreeva is dancing in ‘Nile Dragon Boat’, an upscale nigthclub on the banks of the River Nile. Her costume is a sequinned, halterneck white dress with an open back. The dress cuts away to reveal her stomach, and also splits over one leg at the thigh. Andreeva is dancing on a podium in the middle of a number of revellers, who are all dancing or taking videos with their smartphones. The video was shared and commented upon thousands of times, and has divided opinion in Egypt.

 "….These dancers come from abroad to rip off millions of Egyptians, who spend their money unthinkingly. Foolish Egyptian people," writes this Facebook user.

"Free the brave Jawhara" says this Twitter user, using an Arabic term of endearment meaning 'jewel'.

On February 6, the authorities arrested her.

 

"The Egyptian authorities wanted to make an example of me"

Ekaterina Andreeva told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about her arrest.

On February 5, 2018, when I was dancing at the Nile Dragon boat, one of the people in the audience filmed me. In only a few hours the video had gone viral with nearly a million shares. The next day, I was arrested. They accused me of ‘inciting immorality’. Over the course of three days, they came up with different reasons to justify my arrest. First, they reproached me for the video, which isn’t really fair seeing as I had nothing to do with the fact that it had been posted online. Second, they accused me of not respecting the rules in terms of my costume and my behaviour, and then finally they focused on my irregular immigration status in Egypt. Basically, they ended up contradicting themselves. 

The state prosecutor Hatim Fadl focused on Andreeva’s provocative dance moves as well as her revealing costume, saying, "Regulations state that the dancer has to wear underwear of any colour other than beige". This is because beige is considered too close to one’s skin colour, so it’s not easily visible and could be mistaken for nudity. Andreeva was detained for three days and threatened with deportation.

I contacted the Russian Embassy in Cairo and we agreed that the authorities didn’t have any consistent proof to justify my arrest. For three days, my husband did all he could to make sure that I was released, going from the consulate to the Russian authorities. Then the nightclub sent me a lawyer and it seemed that someone had sent an order from up above: I was freed with a bail of 5000 pounds [around 230 euros]. I think because of the popularity of the video, the authorities just wanted to make an example of me and to arrest me. From now on, I’m going to try and be more careful. I won’t publicise where and when I’m going to perform in advance. It’s the only thing I’m able to control. 


Outfits that are "too revealing" are forbidden

Ekaterina Andreeva arrived in Egypt on January 31, 2018 on a tourist visa. She then got a license from the Ministry of Labour that allowed her to work as a dancer in Egypt. This license permits foreigners to work in only one workplace, which in turn has to pay the state for a special license. According to the prosecutor’s statement, as well as wearing a revealing outift, Andreeva didn’t respect the exclusive nature of the contract and had worked at several different clubs in Cairo’s nightclub scene. These measures come from a 1955 law that regulates morality and censorship of art and culture – but the rules have never been followed so strictly as they are now.

"The regime has carried out a clampdown on immoral behaviour, in return for Salafist support "

For several years now, the morality police – police officers in charge of making sure that people behave morally – have been keeping an eye on nightclub dancers. Mouad, a nightclub manager in Cairo, says that the police have even started to conduct raids. Franco-Egyptian militant feminist and researcher Sérénade Chafik says that the morality police have become a lot more visible over the past few years.

A certain moralistic attitude and prejudice against dancers has always existed in Egypt. But since President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi came to power [in 2013], this focus on ‘moral behaviour’ has gone out of control. This is due to al-Sissi’s very close links to the Salafist party Hezb el-Nour. It’s the party that supports al-Sissi’s regime most overtly, which responds in kind by cracking down even harder on immoral behaviour. This political pact between the presidency and the Salafists means that they’ve got the weight of the law on their side when it comes to controlling and censoring the arts. Egyptian singers and dancers are spied upon and often arrested.

If the 2011 revolution brought with it a glimmer of hope, this was quickly extinguished when first the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, then Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. Egypt is also at war with the Islamic State Group, which accuses it of being a "corrupt” country. For the ruling regime, playing the role of morality police is a good way of refuting this kind of accusation.

"When I dance, it's society as a whole that judges me"

Kamelia is one of the few Egyptian nightclub dancers left. Originally from Alexandria, she moved to Cairo in 2008.


Video of the dancer Kamelia Eskandarania at a wedding in February 2016.
 

As an Egyptian dancer, I get a lot more checks. When I dance, it’s society in general that judges me, that spies on me. Egyptians are conflicted between their desire to watch me dance and their denial of the fact that an Egyptian woman could be an object of lust.

The same laws apply to foreigners, but the repercussions are worse for Egyptian women. If I don’t respect the morality laws, I’m not just forced to go to live in another country. I’m completely banished, and I could end my days in prison. If you’re not careful, you risk becoming a total outcast.

In the face of this increasingly brutal repression, fewer and fewer Egyptian women work in the entertainment industry, and are instead being replaced by foreign women, who are subject to the same laws – but not the same judgement.