The rise of Islamist groups in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya as a result of the revolutionary movement in Arab countries this year has generated much angst about the fate of the arts, in Egypt in particular. The regimes in Egypt and Tunisia were fond of presenting themselves as protectors of the arts against conservative Islamic forces and now that both in are a state of transformation many in the entertainment industry are preparing for the worst. Egyptian directors and actors at the Dubai International Film Festival this month expressed those fears: not only the country was in a mess, they said in private, the future of cinema and television was bleak. Many are looking to get out of the country and the Gulf, not least Dubai, is an attractive exile. The specific fear is that actresses will be obliged to cover up and the subject matter of the arts will shift to more conservative and “Islamic” themes. The ethic of Egyptian state TV itself could change, with more veiled women appearing, and this would be part of a wider shift in society – those will-they/won’t-they reports of Salafis banning alcohol, enforcing the hejab, banning bikinis and introducing a version of Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Now of course, Egypt has already witnessed a considerable shift to religious conservatism in stages since the 1970s. One film at the Dubai festival discussed this phenomenon of public and private religiosity in the Syrian context, which I wrote about here: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2011/12/19/us-syria-film-religion-idUKTRE7BI1JR20111219. The discrediting of secular Arab nationalism after the Arab defeat in 1967 was one of the indicators of this shift as was the oil boom that transformed Saudi Arabia into the arbiter of “mainstream” Sunni Islam (and facilitating Wahhabism’s entry into respectacle circles). Mubarak regime minions such as Safwat Sherif kept the Islamic headscarf that was a reality of the urban scene off of television as much as possible. In other words, the secular modernism promoted by the regime was a distortion of what Egypt was becoming. So Islamists will have some justification in saying they are righting the misrepresentation of the ancien regime, regardless of their rhetoric of al-fann being haram.
However, I think a more pertinent issue to raise here is the general state of the al-wasat al-fanni, or the entertainment scene/crowd, as it is often referred to in Arabic, since this is what exercises the minds of these new players on the political scene. It is utterly corrupt. The arts were and are an intimate part of the rotten structure of Arab state politics. To rise to the top in Mubarak’s entertainment world you had to play the game with the regime, because the state placed itself at the centre of artistic production, giving the more sordid aspects of fame familiar anywhere a more sinister turn. Numerous actresses have fallen out of favour because they didn’t want to submit to the sleazy rules of fame laid down by Media Production City and its former boss Mamdouh al-Leithy. Wealthy ministers or princes from Gulf countries enter into the equation, funding films or promoting actresses who might receive a phone call from an intermediary offering them a three-day trip to visit the prince, ferried on a private jet without need for stamping passport, and topped off with a large amount of dollars placed in bank account (something Lebanese presenter Tony Khalifa once fished at in questions to two well-known actresses on his show). Egyptian independent and opposition newspapers often hint at these deals, with articles noting the sudden wealth of so-and-so who now has her very own Mercedes, or who just returned from a major shopping trip to Paris or the Gulf. The transnational corruption of Arab arts was hinted at by the murder in 2008 of a not-so-talented Lebanese singer taken out in Dubai by a hitman sent by her former tycoon lover in Egypt.
Getting in with the right crowd also meant singing the praises of the head of the system himself and engaging in faux patriotism. Where this made some people, it ruined others. Take the singer Ali al-Haggar. Widely regarded as one of the most gifted of his generation, state media put al-Haggar almost entirely out of business in revenge for songs such as Ya Masry Leih, with lyrics by Sayed Hegab that discussed frankly the extent of the national decheance (see it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZJLTtN0gdM). Last year he was seen on one TV channel in tears, saying he can’t find work. Some pro-regime artistes made the mistake of backing the wrong horse during the three week uprising, but with the corrupt system still in place, they have managed to survive. Singer/actor Tamer Hosni cried on TV for “our father” Mubarak, then was ejected from Tahrir Square, but Saudi-owned MBC TV funded him in a Ramadan soap opera last summer. If you want to star in productions funded by MBC, Prince Alwaleed’s Rotana, Good News (owned by Emad Adib), 21st Century Production (owned by Egyptian actress with Jordanian businessman’s money), ART, Film Clinic or others, your interests are with the still-standing system. Whether you survive this or not, depends on how much money those behind you have got, how bad your public commitment to Mubarak was, if you’re able to remove the evidence from YouTube or not, etc.. Singer Mohamed Fouad’s infamous dissolution into a puddle of tears in February over the fate of Mubarak disappeared from YouTube for some months. (But it’s back. Here it is: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uZhkirBf1YM.) Actress Samah Anwar left the country after telling TV the protesters should be burned, but though actor Adel Imam’s Al-Za’im Theatre was attacked on Pyramids during the revolution, he is a big enough mafia unto himself to ride it out. Others have tried to turn themselves into doyens of the revolution and set up Twitter accounts to get jiggy wiv it (I could name them but won’t).
Apart from all that, and I’m mentioning hardly even the tip of the iceberg, there is what one reviewer once called the “tawdry treatment of desire” in most cinema and TV production (for more, see the chapter on cinema in Pop Culture in the Arab World, which I must update!), where the fascination with aping Hollywood meets the reality of the censor and results in something that would put you off sex for life. Any film by the director Inas al-Degheidy is a case in point. Then there’s the genre of titillating pop videos that have come mainly out of Lebanon over the past decade (see for example, from around 2:40 in this video for the song Boss El-Wawa, Haifa Wahbeh in underwear with a child: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2E9D5a11To).
I think Islamists will indeed want to make their influence felt in entertainment, but it’s a far murkier issue than one of puritanical ulama and zealots bent on squashing the freedom of artistic expression – it cuts to the heart of the corruption that the revolutions came to challenge.