The outrage and alarm among Egyptian and Arab intellectuals over the verdict to imprison artist Adel Imam is easily understandable. Thanks to his friends, who kept writing and talking to newspapers, social networks, and international organisations, the verdict is not without controversy. At the crux of the matter is the future of democracy and human rights and rights to freedom of thought and expression.
Adel Imam is among the most important names in Egyptian cinema and theatre. Not only because he is a talented actor, as there is a lot of talent in Egypt, but also due to the fact that he is an intelligent and intellectual artist.
As such, he was able to portray the character of the Egyptian citizen crushed by the ruling regime during the past six decades. The hungry, fearful, helpless Egyptian citizen was non-existent in cinema and theatre in the 1930s and 1940s before Adel Imam started portraying them. Those characters were living parts of a single cell, Egypt, but lost amid the opaque mass, isolated and silenced at that time.
At the time, film and theatre always portrayed the Egyptian middle-class citizen who works a simple job and has his basic needs for a dignified life while he cannot develop or protect his values or achieve his dreams. It was Naguib El-Rihany, in the first half of the last century, personifying Al-Masry Afandi (a middle-class Egyptian) who brought those social layers to light.
Later in the 1950s and 1960s, Fouad El-Mohandes helped Imam take his first steps in the play Al-Sekreter Al-Fanni (A Secretary), performing next to the master. El-Mohandes played the role of a middle-class Egyptian who was crushed and defeated, asked to give testimony regarding something he had never seen and did not participate in at all. In spite of this, he is held responsible.
Later on Adel Imam played a protagonist in the play Shahed Mashafsh Haga (A Witness who Saw Nothing) that was a brilliant expression of the status of Egyptians in the shadow of the oppression imposed by the 23 July officers who staged their coup initially in cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood. Imprisonment of Brotherhood leaders followed when the Islamist movement started to flex its nascent muscles. The officers, however, were afraid that their hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood as a political group could be considered as hostility towards Islam, so they started clamping down on communists and other political groups. Then they gave vast powers and many privileges to the sheikhs of Al-Azhar, creating thereby authority and legitimacy for the military-police regime.
This brief digression is necessary in order to understand the context in which Adel Imam emerged and the social and political realities that imposed themselves on him, and which are the general concerns or moral obligations that occupy him in his art, as the minds of his audience. No intelligent and intellectual artist could react otherwise.
From here, the comedian confronted the greatest issues that Egyptians faced over the past decades, such as political tyranny, poverty and ill-education and religious fanaticism. Tyranny and fanaticism in particular are often two sides of the same coin. Tyrants often use religion, wear religious garb and falsely bathe in its light. Meanwhile, religious groups often mix religion with politics, such as the alliance between the officers who led the 1952 Revolution and Islamists who tried to share the power with them.
Groups representing political Islam have often emerged as strong enemies to freedom of thought and speech, illustrated in actions towards Farag Foda, Naguib Mahfouz, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, along tens of other artists and writers that Islamists targeted, alleged were infidels, turned people against, and created fake controversies around.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar El-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak represent the 60 years of history behind all of the above. In 1950s, there were massacres of university professors that asked for democracy. In the 1960s, massacres targeted the judiciary, men that defended the independence of the judicial system, along with attacks against artists, poets, writers, actors (men and women) that were chased by the regime night and day.
The regime spied on them, threw them in prisons, starved them, tortured them. The regime created surveillance systems, poisoned laws that are full of traps that were worded and formulated by those who craved power. It accepted bribes along the way. Parliament was no longer for the people as it should be but for the tyrant. The judiciary was not for justice but to support injustice and justify the tyrant. The regime used these institutions, which were also used by the organisations of political Islam, and chased Egyptian intellectuals, assassinated them and tortured them.
In many of his cinematic and theatrical artworks, Adel Imam touched on the strong relationship between political oppression and religious terrorism. This is found in theatre plays such as Al-Zaeem (The Leader), Shahed Mashafsh Haga (A Witness who Saw Nothing), and his films Ehna Betou El- Otobees (We are the Bus People), Al-Erhaby (The Terrorist), Al-Erhab Wa Al-Kebab (Terrorism and Kebab), Toyor Al-Zalam (Birds of the Night), and Hassan and Marcus, among others.
Fathi Nofal, a man of law and the office manager of the minister in "Birds of the Night," is a carbon copy of the image of his colleague Ali El-Zanaty, the spokesperson of fanatic groups, or maybe we can say they are the same character with two faces.
Ahmed, the protagonist of "Terrorism and Kebab" is a terrorist inadvertently. He was seeking to transfer his son to a nearby school, but found a gun. He decided to become a terrorist and lay his terms onto authority, which was shaken by his gun. When authority asked him for his demands all he asked was a kebab meal.
Adel Imam's work made us laugh and cry, and surprised us with realism, showing the invisible construction that frames a system and constitutes it. The terrorist in reality was simply a miserable person, a crushed employee, who turns down the wrong path. The regime that fights such misfortunates is in itself a terrorist regime. The favoured victim of the regime and terrorists together is an intellectual with an opinion: a writer, poet, artist, creator who has freedom as his cause and is the enemy of tyranny, violence and fanaticism.
Writers and artists who work with Adel Imam are subject to the same that Imam is himself subject to. They are enemies of tyranny and terrorism: Wahid Hamed, Lenin El-Ramly, and Sherif Arafa. Therefore, it is also natural for Egyptian intellectuals and citizens to feel deep concerns towards what happened to Adel Imam and his colleagues. On the one hand, for reasons of admiration and compassion, and on the other, because what happened to Imam is an alarming omen that foretells a future drawn in dark shadows.
And this has happened because fanatics have taken over power and now are parliamentarians, rulers, legislators, executers.
So how can we defend Adel Imam?
We can defend him by declaring war on his two enemies: tyrant rulers and those who ply a trade with religion. At the same time, you've seen that the tyrants trade also with religion, that the traders of religion align with the tyrants, that the hostility against freedom of thought and expression has been a steady policy since the 23 July regime, and that Adel Imam is not the first Egyptian intellectual to be subject to humiliation; that before him many were subject to imprisonment, assassination, dispossession, such as Louis Awad, Ihsan Abdel-Koddous, Fekry Abaza, Mahmoud Amin El-Alem, Salah Hafez, Abdel-Rahman El-Khamisi, Hassan Fouad, Gamal Kamel, Alfred Farag, Kamal Abdelhalim, Fouad Haddad, Youssef Idris, Sonaallah Ibrahim, Ibrahim Fathi, Shohdi Eita, Farag Foda, Naguib Mahfouz, Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, Nawal El-Saadawy, and dozens and dozens of others.
Let us start our war with the enemies of the mind and the enemies of freedom from where they started. We have to acquit ourselves of this black history from its beginning to its end. The cause, as you can see, is not Adel Imam's only, but the cause of the culture of Egypt and Egyptians as a whole. Those who oppose Mubarak and Sadat's tyranny but ignore the foundations of the tyranny are two-faced. And those who trade religious rule for military rule are deceived. Religious rule and military rule are two sides of the same coin of tyranny. Those who speak about radical terrorism and ignore official terrorism look at the part of the picture.