CAIRO – Egypt’s state censors prohibited the performance of a play just hours before its Sunday premiere in Cairo, the latest episode in authorities’ unrelenting crackdown on free speech.
Director Ahmed El Attar cancelled the Sunday and Monday showings of Before The Revolution, a two-actor piece that depicts feelings of oppression and stagnation in Egypt before its 2011 popular uprising, saying that to remove five scenes as required by the censors heavily distorted the piece.
The play, which had been set to show in a 100-seat theatre for six nights, is part of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival, the biggest arts event in Cairo’s city center, supported mostly by foreign cultural institutes and embassies as well as UNESCO.
“The director and playwright El Attar saw that removing five scenes has a negative and strong impact on the dramatic construction and the work of art, draining its artistic and literary content,” organizers said in a statement.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the 2013 overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president, has waged a massive crackdown on dissent and free speech, and authorities have ratcheted up pressure ahead of an upcoming election he is set to win virtually unchallenged.
After all potentially serious competitors were arrested or intimidated out of the race, on March 26-28 Egyptians will vote either for el-Sissi or a little-known politician who supports him and has not campaigned. Posters of el-Sissi look down over most major thoroughfares across the country.
Meanwhile, authorities have taken a hard line against any critical media, arresting several reporters while the country’s chief prosecutor described critical journalists as “forces of evil” who “undermine the security and safety of the nation through the broadcast and publication of lies and false news.”
Sunday’s censoring would be the second time authorities have cracked down on a play ahead of the election – six people were also arrested this month for their involvement in a piece at a Cairo sports club seen as insulting to security forces because it referenced a controversial police figure who had killed Israeli tourists in 1985.
El Attar, who is also the art festival’s general manager and artistic director, has appealed for a second censorship committee to watch the show on March 19th, hopefully allowing it to be shown without the proposed cuts.
The playwright’s social satire has been appreciated in Europe, most recently with 2014’s The Last Supper, a critique of Egypt’s Cairo elite and a class-led patriarchy that was well received at theatre festivals.
In Before The Revolution, El Attar says that while he found it too early to address artistically the events of 2011, he hoped to examine some of the conditions that led to the revolt that overthrew Egypt’s long-term autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“I want to convey the emotions of the period,” he told The Associated Press in an interview last week. “I think it was a rough period, it was a time when it was all suppression and defeat, I mean it was hard. So I want (the audience) to feel that.”
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