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The Misdemeanor Court in al-Haram, Cairo held up a three-month prison sentence on Tuesday against Adel Imam, one of the most popular comedians in the region. He was accused by Islamists of insulting religion in his films, some dating back 30 years.
The Birds of Darkness, from the title of one of Adel Imam’s most famous movies critical of Islamists, have not only set their sights on Imam. They have the potential to lay their dark shadows on freedom of thought in all of Egypt.
This realization comes after a legal campaign against the infamous actor which has prompted the first solidarity campaign with Imam in many years, especially since he had sided with Hosni Mubarak during the days of revolution.
The lawsuit accuses him of “contempt of religion and insulting Islam through artistic work.” It targets films that Imam worked on in the past, such as Hassan and Marcus (2008); Mahrous, the Minister’s Boy (1999); Morgan Ahmed Morgan (2007); The Birds of Darkness (1995); Terrorism and Kebab (1993); The Terrorist (1994); and two plays, The Leader and Sayyid the Servant.
This decision prompted an outpouring of support from the arts and entertainment industry. Everyone joined together for a single cause, to defend creative freedoms in Egypt that seem to be on trial.
Solidarity campaigns with Imam took off in the real and virtual worlds simultaneously. The Egyptian Actors Union announced it will hold “an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss ways to stand in solidarity with Imam.”
As for the sentence itself, it can be appealed to the highest court according to his lawyers. Imam, who has not commented on the case, will have to pay a 100,000 Egyptian Pounds (LE) (US$18,000) bail until the sentence is appealed.
Various legal measures could be taken to avert Imam’s actual imprisonment. But no one in Egypt today can guarantee that a final sentence will not be issued against possibly the most popular Egyptian actor in the past 30 years.
If this were to happen, Imam would have to stay outside Egypt so he would not end up in prison.
The art scene in Egypt today is concerned more with the legal loopholes that subject creativity to the whim of extremists than the details of Imam’s case in particular.
It appears as though artists are spearheading this battle and they are fully aware of the danger of this legal precedent.
The Egyptian Creativity Front, formed after Islamists assumed power, issued a statement declaring that the sentence to imprison Imam “is out of step with the general direction of nations” and “an assault on freedoms guaranteed to all human beings by divine laws and human constitutions.”
Novelist Alaa al-Aswany tweeted, “Imprisoning Adel Imam because of his acting means we are back in the middle ages.”
Tensions between Imam and the Islamists began years before The Terrorist, in which he starred in 1994. Back in 1988, Islamist groups had banned a play by a university theater group in Assiut in Upper Egypt, so Imam decided to go with his group there to present his play Sayyed the Servant, under heavy police protection.
A constant point of ambiguity with Imam was distinguishing between what he believed in concerning a certain cause versus adopting a cause that happens to serve the regime’s interests.
That does not mean however that he was the “regime’s artist.” To be fair, Imam expressed the dreams of the poor for years in films such as A Police Station in the Street (1986), Love in a Prison Cell (1983), and Terrorism and Kebab.
Imam went to the very end in his artistic opposition, even though it was a traditional kind of opposition under the scope of the regime, not unusual in the Arab world.
In The Birds of Darkness (1995) – directed by Sharif Arafa and written by Hamid Hamed – he presented one of the best Egyptian cinematic takes on the vital relationship between religious terrorism and government corruption.
Most of the criticism that Imam directed against Islamists was accompanied by stinging criticism of governmental policies and sometimes the latter exceeded the former as in Terrorism and Kebab (1993).
But political Islam has always confronted him with the charge that his movies make fun of Islam, not Islamists. It is the same argument they use in politics.
The Salafi lawyer, Asran Mansour, brought a lawsuit against Imam accusing him of insulting Islam in his work. It is one of many cases in which Islamists have put cinematic works on trial.
Imam has the right to appeal the decision to uphold the three-months prison sentence. Had the first sentence not been in absentia, Imam would have had to serve it and to file the appeal while in prison.
No objective person can miss the sweeping mockery in the movie Terrorism and Kebab of a government that turned a simple employee into a dangerous terrorist in public opinion.
Morgan Ahmed Morgan ridicules a businessman used to paying bribes even to buy literary talent and stardom. In one scene, his children’s teacher played by Mervat Amin tells him that he cannot buy his daughter’s recovery from her illness. “What are you going to do now? Can you bribe God?” she asks him.
In the next scene, we see Imam sitting on a prayer rug asking his men to feed the hungry and give money to the poor, a scene which the court considered a “mockery of God.”
Looking at most of the scenes “condemned” by the court, we find similarities between Imam’s case and the case of the Egyptian Coptic tycoon, Najib Sawiris, who was accused of contempt of Islam because he shared a picture of a bearded Mickey Mouse on Twitter.
Imam is definitely not the first to criticize political Islam or poke fun at terrorists, but one man’s punishment is a deterrent to many. There is no better “man” to make an example of than the most famous actor in the Arab world.
Imam built his defense on the premise that his works had received the approval of government censors. If he fails to revoke his sentence in the appellate court, then his prison walls will begin to limit the imagination of many artists.
[This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition and was originally published on Alakhbar English].
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