Cultural Divide Fuels Controversy over Egyptian Actor

Article Summary
Adel Imam, one of Egypt’s cultural icons, has come under fire from the Salafists for “defaming Islam on screen and on stage,” and has been sentenced to three months in jail. The cultural and political battle over the legitimacy of the verdict may have serious repercussions for post-revolutionary Egypt, writes Jihad al-Zein.

Adel Imam, the great Egyptian actor, is today caught up in a large cultural-political conflict that will affect the future of the Arab and Muslim world in the post-Arab Spring phase. How has the Arab elite been divided into two major cultural blocs within the context of a political conflict? [Let us examine this below].

I am not sure if I have seen all of Adel Imam's countless movies. But, like millions of Arab viewers, I have certainly seen a great deal of his cinematic works and plays.

Imam has acted in numerous comedy films that have addressed serious issues in Egyptian society [by mixing humor with tragedy]. Over the past four decades, he participated in and directed many films of high production quality. He was described as the Arab world's Woody Allen or Michael Moore.

In past years, Adel Imam has outranked the great film director Yussef Chahin in terms of social and political impact on Arab and Egyptian society. However, both artists have shared the same position towards Islamic fundamentalists, although each one has expressed it in his own way. Imam has portrayed the character of ordinary Egyptian people as victims to injustice and social class [conflict], while Chahine shed light on the historical culture of Egypt in his movie al-Masir [Destiny]. Imam also appeared alongside many reputable stars in the Yacoubian Building film, where he played a leading role. The film is adapted from the novel of the same name, which shed light on the contemporary Egyptian events that led, a few years later, to the revolution that erupted in Tahrir Square, only few blocks away from the building.

The novel was written by Alaa al-Aswany, who later became one of the biggest symbols of the revolution. The film - thanks to the outstanding performance of Imam - was just as enjoyable as the novel, unlike other western or Arabic movies which fail to convey the whole sense of the novel. Some of these movies include:  A Deputy in the Countryside: A Diary by Toufic al-Hakim, and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, in which the American Greta Garbo played the leading role in 1935, followed by French actress Sophie Marceau in 1997.

The great actor Adel Imam is today caught up in the large cultural-political conflict that will affect the future of the Arab and Muslim world in the post-Arab Spring phase. The famous actor was sentenced to three months in jail - as a result of a case filed by a Salafist - for "defaming Islam” in several roles on screen and stage. Imam appealed the ruling, and its execution was suspended. Imam's supporters said that his roles were indeed meant to speak out against extremists and intolerance, but that his work was definitely not anti-religion.

It is true that the films referred to in the case filed against him have previously angered Islamic fundamentalists. However, the verdict issued against the actor raises concerns that the Egyptian judiciary might be  compromised as Islamists gain power in Egypt. Under these circumstances, people fear that the new authorities will crack down on the "freedom of creativity," which was promoted by the Sheikh and Professor Dr. Ahmad El Tayeib following the recent [January 2012] issuance of the second Al-Azhar Document, welcomed by the Egyptian educated and political elite. The document upholds the freedom of artistic and literary expression and creativity within the context of the four fixed cultural values.

The battle against Adel Imam is only one aspect of the future cultural conflict that will shape the  upcoming phase in Egypt, as Islamic fundamentalist parties hold a strong majority in the parliament.  Let us not forget that the former regime, which used to suppress fundamentalists so as to prevent them from taking over political power, granted "cultural authorities," [protecting certain artists’ freedom of expression]. Mubarak regime overlooked verdicts against Najib Mahfouz, Nasser Hamed Abu Zed and many others.

This battle has spread out across the country in the post-Arab Spring phase. This time, however, it is not a battle between the army and Islamists, but rather one that pits the liberal, leftist, secular and youth movements against Islamic fundamentalists.

The fundamentalists hold a popular majority. The cultural elite, on the other hand, are supported by the minorities in the media and art circles, where fundamentalists have failed to gain ground or influence cadres.

Thus, today, Egypt has become caught up between two major [cultural] blocs [and a divide of historical significance]. A pitched battle at the parliamentary, street and judiciary levels will soon emerge - in case the political game is able to stay within a peaceful context.

If cultural goals were really at the heart of [Egypt’s] political [conflict], this would be reflected in economic [policies]. This was the case for the tourism sectors of Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt, which [have opened up to] what has been called "Salafist Tourism."

I will not be surprised if the movements supporting and defending Adel Imam will turn into Arab revolutions themselves. However, I do not believe that these artistic revolutionaries  will  limit their protests to [issuing] statements and [filing] appeals alone. They will go as far as to hold film festivals, make movies and plays in the Arab capitals - or even European and Western ones.

We are all Adel Imam.

Found in: salafists

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