Most glorious days of freedom

Friday 05/06/2015
Bassem Youssef announcing the end of his show

Cairo - I must admit to being sceptical about the Ministry of Culture — the same organisation that em­ploys an official censor to vet and ban theatrical and cinemat­ic productions — sponsoring a con­ference on Theatre and Censorship. With guests from the Arab world and from as far afield as Hong Kong, the undertaking itself was excellent and the scholars and theatre-mak­ers sincere.
The question is whether this is just another manifestation of de­posed President Hosni Mubarak’s safety-valve strategy of “Let them say what they like and we shall do what we like.”
After all, in his final news con­ference political satirist Bassem Youssef all but said outright that he had been pressured into cancelling his popular show Al Bernameg (The Programme), which poked fun at those in the upper echelons of po­litical authority.
Meanwhile, commentator Reem Maged cancelled her liberal politi­cal talk show — one may assume for similar reasons — and launched instead Gam’ Mu’annas Salem (Feminine Plural), a show about prominent women. It was promptly banned from OnTV (although not the German satellite channel DW, where it is still running) after a fe­male photographer Reem hosted spoke of covering “the Rabia massa­cre”, when security forces stormed protests by supporters of ousted Is­lamist President Mohammed Morsi, killing more than 800 people.
Meanwhile, the party line is clear. “Everybody can speak their mind in the newspapers and the talk shows. Anybody can be criticised in the me­dia, from the president to any state institution. There is no limitation… on freedom of expression in Egypt and we are very keen on ensuring that,” said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in an interview on US television.
Indeed, in the words of Youssef, “Egypt is witnessing its most glori­ous days of freedom and I’ll cut out the tongue of anyone who says dif­ferently!”
By and large, the papers at the conference said it differently. “Our profession is in the abyss; we must stay on the precipice,” said Leba­nese director Nidal al-Ashqar, own­er of Beirut’s Medina Theatre, in her impassioned polemic against the curbing of freedoms. From Egypt, Ahmed Adel Qudabi presented historical papers on the Theatre Clubs Movement, a government-sponsored initiative that owes its provenance to the Cultural Palaces of the socialist-inspired Nasser-era cultural apparatus, noting that while these were nominally not subject to censorship, their perfor­mances cannot be accepted with­out a rigorous vetting process by a government-appointed committee which, of course, espouses govern­ment values.
School and university theatres are faring even worse, said Ali Abdel- Moneim Dawoud, archival director at the National Centre for Theatre. These supposedly youth-oriented channels are circumscribed by ossi­fied traditions dating to the pre-in­ternet era. Meanwhile, governmen­tal funding sources guarantee that only conservative offerings will be supported, especially in university settings where the official attitude towards political rebellion is paro­chial, to say the least.
The resemblance between Hong Kong (presented by Janice Sze Wan Poon) and Egypt is chilling: “[The] Public Entertainment Ordinance… requested theatre practitioners to submit all their scripts to the Com­missioner for Television and Enter­tainment Licensing before they can get a stage performance permit. The ordinance entitled the commission­er to have the authority to censor every script before they can be put on stage.
It reinforced a script-vetting sys­tem which enhanced productions of non-political or pro-government works.”
Gulnar Wakim’s paper on theatre and censorship in Latin America spoke of self-censorship, which par­allels the situation in Egypt. Other researchers spoke of types of cen­sorship, official and unofficial, and the social and sexual conventions and taboos that govern (and drive) theatre-makers in a conservative society. Thomas Engel, executive director of the German chapter of the International Theatre Institute (ITI), gallantly declared: “What can artists and artists’ organisations do? We have to make all cases of vio­lence against artists or the freedom of artistic expression public. Or­ganisations with political influence have to raise their voices and help their colleagues.”
This admirable international solidarity is essential for political dissidents and people risking tor­ture. Self-censorship, the refusal to push the limits just in case someone might disapprove, is more insidi­ous, more slippery and far harder to fight. “Theatre is the enemy of pow­er,” declared Miriam Bu-Salmiin in her Theatre: Disrupting the Public Order.
Given the expanded definition of theatre and performance — some studies have recently taken the Oc­cupy Movements and Tahrir Square sit-ins as examples of public per­formance — this is very probably true but I might substitute “victim” for “enemy”. With ever-shrinking funding, apparatuses and freedoms, plus an ever-growing list of taboos — sexual, social and religious, as well as political — I often wonder at what point theatre-makers — af­ter the first flare of energy-fuelled youth is over — will decide the game isn’t worth the candle.
The Theatre and Censorship con­ference was May 23th-26th at the Hanager Theatre & Supreme Cul­tural Council in Cairo.