Egyptian comedians critical of Sisi arrested for ‘inciting terrorism’
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Five comedians known for videos that mock President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi were arrested on May 10. Ezzedine Khaled, who at 19 is the youngest member of the comedy troupe "Atfal al-Shawarea", has been released, but the others are being charged with “inciting terrorism”. Their lawyer has called these charges an attack on freedom of artistic expression.
Since 2016, the comedians in "Atfal al-Shawarea", which translates as “Street Kids”, have been publishing videos on their Facebook page. Their short videos, which are shot in selfie mode in the street, may be low-budget, but their subversive humour has earned them quite a following. They had almost 300,000 followers on Facebook before their account was suspended on May 10.
"They film themselves doing a cappella versions of well-known Egyptian folksongs or well-known pop songs from the 90s with the lyrics rewritten to make fun of the current regime and the followers of [President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi],” explains Egypt specialist Adel Iskandar, a professor of communications at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. “Their highly sarcastic, yet playful lyrics really shine a light on social justice issues. Their most recent videos were particularly political. One of their songs criticised arbitrary arrests carried out by the government and some commentators are saying that it is this video that resulted in their arrests.”
Even though their Facebook page was shut down, their YouTube channel is still active. Just in case, we decided to make copies of their videos and save them on the Observers YouTube channel.
Here are a few examples:
"Thank you, my country’s army!"
In this video, the comedians parody the patriotic slogans of the regime and poke fun at the arguments used by al-Sisi’s camp to justify repression.
The actors draw on a variety of musical styles. One of the songs they use is an Egyptian cover of ‘Tom’s Diner’, a song recorded in the 1980s by American singer Suzanne Vega. The Egyptian version, recorded by singer Simone in the late eighties, was a huge hit back then.
At 0’41, they try to shout “Tahia Masr” or “Long Live Egypt”, the slogan used by al-Sisi’s supporters during the last presidential elections. However, they are obviously missing the passion needed to make it believable.
“It has to be natural,” says one. “You have to feel it.”
Finally, the third time’s the charm and they manage to chant the slogans with some semblance of zeal.
"Thanks to my country’s army," they go on to sing, imitating an Egyptian song that glorifies the Egyptian army. It’s a way to criticise the nationalism flouted by the regime, which pays for musical productions to emphasize the country’s grandeur. At the end of the video, the Street Kids act out an arrest and an interrogation carried out by the country’s police.
Saudi Arabia and the Red Sea islands
With 2 million views on Facebook, this video has more views than any of their other videos. It is about how control over two islands in the Red Sea was transferred from Egypt to Saudi Arabia on April 10, 2016.
The actors then recount the main events of Egyptian history… starting with the pharaohs and moving up to today. Except in the parody, Egypt is no longer called Egypt but Saudi Arabia, and the capital Cairo has been replaced by Riyadh.
"The state is afraid of the liberty provided by the internet”Mahmoud Othman is the comedians’ lawyer and a member of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.
The members of the group certainly weren’t expecting such serious accusations. They have been working in theatre for the past five years and they never had political problems before this. They are all shocked. I’m shocked, too – artists shouldn’t be treated like criminals.
The accusations made against them go contrary to the Egyptian constitution, which guarantees protection of artistic expression. This isn’t the first time that the state has gone after artists, for sure, but we’re currently seeing increasing repression of dissenting opinions. The state is afraid of the freedom guaranteed by the internet, especially for artists like Atfal al-Shawarea, who publish sarcastic videos that really capture our current situation in Egypt.
Ezzedine Khaled, the youngest member of the group, was arrested at his home on May 7, for “inciting riots” and “sharing a video on the internet that includes injurious statements against state institutions”. He was held in detention for four days. Finally, the court decided to free him for a bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds [Editor’s note: close to €1,000], which his family paid. The prosecutor has appealed the court’s decision.
Ezzedine is now back at home and is waiting for the appeal to be tried. Since then, the four other members of the group were arrested as well. They are going to be held in detention for at least 15 days. They are accused of being "a group inciting rebellion and a coup” as well as “inciting terrorism”. These charges are completely out of proportion!
Online support campaign for the arrested actors
Ironically, the fact that these actors were arrested has only made them more popular. A social media campaign calling for their release is currently in full swing. Many people, including the well-known Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, have published the comedians’ videos or selfies with the hashtag “#FreeTheStreetKids” (in Arabic).
Many people have been taking selfies to show their solidarity for the arrested comedians.
A report published in 2016 by Amnesty International underlines the rapidly disintegrating human rights situation in Egypt, especially the imposition of arbitrary restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful gatherings.
In April 2016, 1,200 people were arrested after protesting President al-Sisi’s decision to transfer sovereignty of two inhabited islands in the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. About 577 of those people are still facing charges related to these arrests, notably for breaking a law requiring official authorisation for public gatherings of more than 10 people.