Amid Islamist insurgency, Egypt tackles ‘security threat’ from musicians

As Saudi Arabia relaxes its rules against cinemas and women drivers, Egypt now looks set to inherit the coveted title of Arab country with the most absurd restrictions. Having made little progress in combating an Islamist insurgency, the Sisi regime has turned its attention to the “threat” posed by atheists, gay people and — increasingly — musicians.

This week brought the arrest of Laila Amer, the third female singer to face criminal charges since November. She has been imprisoned since Tuesday following a complaint from Ahmed Mahran, a vigilante lawyer who claims that her recent video performance poses a “great risk” to Egypt. Mahran also filed a criminal complaint against fans who waved rainbow flags at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo last September.

Amer’s song (see video) features a housewife complaining about her mother-in-law. Some her movements are sexually suggestive and changing a single letter in the song’s title, Buss Ummak (“Look at your mother”), would turn it into an obscene Arabic expression.

Amer has now been expelled from the government-linked musicians’ union, the Syndicate of Musical Professions — a body tasked with preventing performances of “abnormal art”.

Meanwhile, Sherine Abdel Wahab, one of the most popular Egyptian singers, is facing trial over remarks made at a concert in the United Arab Emirates. Referring to one of her hits, a patriotic song called “Have You Drunk From the Nile?”, she joked that drinking Evian water would be healthier.

She is charged under an article in Egypt’s penal code which bans statements liable to “disturb public security, spread horror among the people or cause harm and damage to the public interest”.

The musicians’ union also banned her from performing in Egypt, pending further investigation of her “unjustified ridicule towards our dear Egypt”.

Last month Shaimaa Ahmed, known to her fans as Shyma, was given a two-year jail sentence (later reduced to one year) for “inciting debauchery” by suggestively eating a banana in a music video.

These cases are just high-profile examples of a more generalised assault on musicians’ freedom which also includes last-minute cancellation of concerts for strange or unexplained reasons, censorship of lyrics, banning live performances of specific songs, and “security” vetting of performers.

In an article for Mada Masr earlier this week, Hessen Hossam suggested the aim is partly to appease conservative elements in Egyptian society but also to harass performers who the regime considers politically suspect.

Describing one example of the cancellations, Hossam wrote:

“Earlier this month, on December 8, a concert by Egyptian rock band Cairokee, whose stardom rose along with the Egyptian revolution and who haven’t shied away from declaring their opposition to the regime throughout the years that ensued, was set to take place. The sold-out and highly anticipated event … was cancelled only one day beforehand.

“No explanations or written orders were given to the band, they were only informed by the managers of the venue … that the concert was no longer happening because of the ‘trouble with Jerusalem’, in reference to US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem only a few days before.”

A second attempt to hold the concert, on December 22 at a different venue, also failed when the venue was commandeered for a military funeral.

At the end of October the Ashkal Music Festival featuring Arab and African artists with a popular following in Egypt was also cancelled at short notice. The reason, according to Mahmoud Youssef, one of the musicians’ managers, was that some of the performers could not get permits from the government’s Censorship Board. He told Mada Masr:

“Right now, any political or revolutionary content is being censored or rejected. The board considered the Palestinian band 47 Soul a ‘rebellious’ band, and Tinariwen are known for their opposition to the Qadhafi regime in Libya before and during the revolution. Even though these artists are not openly political in their performance or lyrics, their political backgrounds and ideals are not welcome by the Egyptian state.”

It seems the authorities have stepped up their monitoring of musicial activity in the wake of the moral panic surrounding Mashrou’ Leila’s concert in September. The band’s lead singer is openly gay and several members of the audience were seen waving rainbow flags (which several members of parliament are now attempting to ban).

“It is now more difficult to issue permits, more papers are being required of us and we are dealing with a much higher level of security attention,” Youssef told Mada Masr. “We are currently required to answer to the Department for the Investigation of Artistic Products and Intellectual Property, not the regular Censorship Board. This is a higher authority, and we are now obliged to supply them with the name of each and every performer that goes up on stage so they can investigate them.”

Originally published at

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.