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Satire leads Egypt youth troupe to prison

The Egyptian authorities seem to be taking a break from fighting terrorism to zealously track down young entertainers.

They weren’t planting bombs, attacking people or even defacing public property, but the members of an Egyptian troupe called Street Children have been detained and investigated for allegedly inciting protests and spreading “terrorist [ideas] that insult the president.”

The troupe released a satirical music video May 2 in which they called on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to leave office. The decision to detain the young men has raised a great deal of controversy and angered many, both among the president’s opponents as well as media figures supportive of him, while others welcomed the move.

The six members of the Street Children troupe appear in selfie-style videos that feature both satirical and critical content — sometimes in the form of music videos, other times in the form of acting performances. Among the topics they have addressed are the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and how the international film industry portrays Egypt, which was the subject of two videos: “Egypt in Hollywood” and “Commercial announcements.”

The troupe has been subjected to security restrictions at many of their shows, but the apparent reason for their detentions were two video clips — “Sisi is my president” and “Ubdah al-bayada” (in reference to a staunch army supporter) — criticizing Sisi.

At first, only one of the troupe’s members was detained. Izz al-Din Khalid, the youngest member, was accused May 7 of inciting protests and releasing online videos in which he condemned state institutions and insulted the president. He was released the following day but remains under investigation. On May 9, three other members were arrested; pending an investigation, the prosecutor decided to detain them for 15 days. The group’s Facebook page was taken off-line.

Many criticized the prosecutors’ actions, including journalist Amr Adib, who is known for his support of Sisi. Adib said on his show "Cairo Today," "The security services — instead of monitoring jihadis — have arrested the Street Children troupe. The future of these young men is now uncertain, following the decision to keep them detained pending charges. [It is as if the prosecutors] have confused them with drug dealers or jihadis. These young men, their friends and their families [are treated] like potential jihadis.”

Activists on social media launched a campaign titled “Does this camera phone scare you?” to express solidarity with the troupe. Many politicians, artists and journalists have participated in the campaign, such as activist Ziyad al-Alimi, comedian Bassem Youssef and artist Amr Waked. All took selfies standing in a similar way as the members of Street Children and posted them on social media, while calling for the troupe’s detained members to be freed.

Several intellectuals also launched an online petition calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the troupe's members and the dismissal of all charges against them. The petition states, “In obedience to our liberty, our humanity and our future, we demand the simplest of all daily human rights: the right to laugh. That has been the Egyptians’ most famous trait, which over the last few years has cost us due to fearmongering and in the name of fighting terrorism and preserving security.”

The petition continues, “At the same time when several members of the troupe were awaiting theatrical honors, receiving prizes from their universities and participating in the theatrical festival in Paris, [they] are spending their days in detention, awaiting yet more harassment for exercising their right to laughter.” Among the statement’s more famous endorsers are former Minister of Culture Emad Abu Ghazi, parliament member Khalid Youssef and artist Khalid Abu al-Naga.

Journalist Ahmed Musa, however, who is known for supporting Sisi and the Ministry of the Interior, and their fierce assault on their detractors, welcomed the decision to imprison the members of Street Children, saying on his show, “They’re inciting against the Egyptian state.”

He added, “What they did is not freedom of opinion; they do not respect the army or the country."

Muhammad Nabawi, a spokesman for the Tamarod movement, attacked the members of Street Children in a recent statement, saying, “Many idle young men clutch a camera and say anything in order to broadcast an idea or a political agenda that serves their ideology, which they have brought in from overseas.”

Tariq al-Awadi, a lawyer for the Street Children troupe, commented in a televised statement, saying, “We are clearly living in an era of total lockdown in the broader climate. We stand before a police state [that is acting] systematically, not randomly. What’s taking place on the ground is that arrest orders are being replaced with orders to 'detain pending investigations.'”

Awadi added, “The young men of Street Children have been accused of releasing videos that insult the state, inciting gatherings and protests. That’s despite the fact that there is no such thing as a crime called 'inciting gathering or protests.' The prosecutors issued an order to release them, but an investigation was opened against them once again and draconian new charges were added: conspiring with others to found a group aiming to topple the founding principles of the state, conspiring with others to broadcast fake news to undermine public security and damage the public interest, as well as inciting to overthrow the ruling regime.”

Judge Muhammad Hamid al-Jamal, former president of the State Council, spoke to Al-Monitor concerning the sentences the Street Children members could receive if they are found guilty of the charges, the most serious of which is “insulting the president of the republic and institutions of the state.” According to Jamal, each charge carries a sentence of three to five years in prison.

He said, “The law criminalizes the utterances that were included in the video these young men released. It considers it a crime to insult the president, and this crime is considered a serious one.”

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