In an unprecedented development, writes Youssef Rakha, comedy superstar Adel Imam is facing a possible three-month prison sentence for alleged “contempt of religion” in several of his films. This week the sentence was temporarily revoked awaiting the outcome of a second appeal, but the writers and directors whose names were included in the suit were declared not guilty. The evidence suggests that a group of Islamists in the legal profession might be settling old scores with Imam, but the incident sounds an alarm for freedom of creativity in the new, post-25 January Egypt.
Imam is arguably the most famous Arab actor alive, and had for decades enjoyed nearly head-of-state status. Early in the revolution last year, he alienated protesters by declaring his support for Mubarak, of whose regime he had become, in effect, an honorary official. Many otherwise pro-freedom of expression younger revolutionaries are therefore unsympathetic with the septuagenarian’s predicament. They forget that it was after a similar kind of suit that the late Islamic scholar Nassr Hamed Abu Zaid was very nearly separated from his wife; though not undertaken through legal channels, the assassination of the anti-Islamist writer Farag Fouda and the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz followed the same line of thought.
Imam, who in his works and statements alike has never demonstrated intellectual depth, had—along with other pro-Mubarak stars who failed to support the revolution—been aptly compared to a court jester. Since he rose to fame in the early 1970s, in his film vehicles and his cabaret-style plays, there was rarely any attempt at profundity beyond bland blanket support for the poor and the man on the street. There are of course exceptions, notably Mohammed Khan’s 1983 Al-Harrif (The Pro) and Sherif Arafa’s 1992 Al-Irhab awl Kabab (Terrorism and Kebab). In the latter, as in many films starring Imam, there is a harsh critique of corrupt religiosity and the association of terrorism with Islamic militants. It was under Mubarak, while the jihadist threat was being contained by State Security, that Imam made his greatest contribution to the portrayal of Wahhabis (later called Salafis) as terrorists posing a threat to society; this was of course in line with state policy.
Yet in many of his best-known plays—from the hilarious landmark Shaid mashafsh haga (A witness who saw nothing, 1976, five years before Mubarak came to power) to the inconsistent Al-Zaim (The Leader, 1993)—Imam provided scathing critiques of the police state and dictatorship (which he was of course careful not to associate with Mubarak off stage). Indeed many of his jokes were actually deployed in the verbal fight to bring down Mubarak in Tahrir Square even as he turned his back to the uprising. The use of such jokes was unavoidable as they had become ubiquitous. In fact Imam contributed to the shaping of spoken Arabic in Egypt, and much of that contribution (whether intentionally or not) was politically subversive.
The Fool is brought to trial not by a new and revolutionary King, however—whom I suspect would have honoured him, anyway—but by the insufferably Dark Ages-oriented Clergy whose power the revolution has facilitated. It is a question that we must ask ourselves as Egyptians, regarding Imam’s predicament as much as any number of issues: To what extent can support for the revolution be a measure of moral worth under the circumstances? And to what extent does political Islam have the right to inherit the new Egypt? Perhaps Imam is no tenable role model, but perhaps he should not be made to do hard labour. And if he is in any way punished, it had better be for his political position—not for failing to kowtow to the bearded inquisitors.