When Hany Hamdy decided to make a movie on Egypt’s political strife, he turned to the living dead for inspiration.
“Zombies suck your blood to live. It’s the same thing as the Muslim Brotherhood sucking the blood of Egyptians for its own interests,” the 32-year-old director of El-Dassas said, giving his creations vampire tendencies to complete the analogy. “They’re ugly, pathetic haters.”
Hamdy’s vilification of an Islamist movement ejected from power by the military last year and pursued by security forces and the courts over the past 12 months hasn’t drawn the attention of Egypt’s authorities. Those who questioned the crackdown, and the election as president of the army chief who led it, haven’t been so lucky, with journalists jailed, columnists forced into silence and television shows scrapped.
The pursuit of critics under Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi amounts to an unprecedented assault on liberties, said Emad Mubarak, head of the Cairo-based Association for Freedom of Expression and Thought. While many Egyptians back El-Sisi -- he won the presidency with 97 percent of votes albeit in an extended poll in which less than half the electorate participated -- he’s overseen a return to the systematic repression that exploded into street rage three years ago, rights activists and freedom monitors say.
That “means more divisions, more polarization and everyone is going to pay the price,” Mubarak said by phone. “Anything that supports the current regime or its values is tolerated regardless of artistic value while there’s widespread hate speech” directed at its enemies.
El-Sisi regularly comments on the need to balance national security with freedoms, and in a meeting with Egyptian journalists and TV anchors urged the media to play its part in protecting the state, the Al-Ahram website reported May 8.
Culture Minister Gaber Asfour wasn’t available when called at his office, while cabinet spokesman Hosam Alkaweesh didn’t answer calls seeking comment.
The government has made it clear it won’t tolerate dissent, and broadcasters and publishers have buckled, according to prominent commentators such as novelist Alaa al-Aswany, a one-time supporter of El-Sisi and author of The Yacoubian Building, which explores the perils of corrupt and undemocratic government.
Ahl Alexandria, a soap opera by writer Belal Fadl that probed social and political issues, was axed in June after officials from Media Production City, which co-produced the show, informed Fadl that it wouldn’t be aired. He said that was because it showed the police in a negative light. A call to the production company wasn’t answered.
Bassem Youssef’s satirical jibes led the Saudi-owned MBC Masr channel to drop his program, which was inspired by The Daily Show. MBC said it took the decision to “to avoid influencing the opinions of voters” during campaigning for the presidential election in May. Youssef said in June he wouldn’t look for another broadcaster as the political climate made it too dangerous to continue. He thanked MBC for its support, saying the pressure applied was “more than it could handle.”
“Criticism and difference of opinion are no longer allowed” in Egypt, al-Aswany said when he gave up his column in the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper in late June.
At least 14 journalists are in prison, including three from Qatari television channel Al Jazeera jailed on charges of aiding the Brotherhood. El-Sisi said in July he wouldn’t intervene in judicial rulings, while adding that he wished the Al Jazeera crew had been deported.
Censorship thrived under former leader Hosni Mubarak and helped galvanize the youth groups that rose up before his ouster in 2011. It was also widespread under Mohamed Mursi, the Islamist president backed by the Brotherhood, whose government banned Youssef’s show.
Yet curbs have been tightened further since Mursi was ousted by the army on July 3 last year, said Vanessa Tucker, vice president for analysis at Washington-based Freedom House, an independent watchdog that monitors democratic trends.
“The situation in Egypt is far worse than it’s been in a really long time,” she said. There had previously “always been an independent media that has made clear an opposition viewpoint. In the past year, these voices and outlets have been restricted. People are arrested at book fairs, as are singers of revolutionary songs. It’s across the expression spectrum.”
The military said it removed Mursi after mass protests accusing him of pushing an Islamist agenda and amassing power while ignoring the economy and trampling on personal freedoms. El-Sisi has blamed the now-banned Brotherhood for sponsoring violence since the ouster. The Brotherhood says it’s committed to peaceful protests against what it calls a coup.
In the last year, hundreds of Brotherhood supporters have been killed by security forces and many more put on trial. Human Rights Watch recorded the killing at least 1,400 protesters in the 12 months following Mursi’s removal.
Egyptians who hold the Brotherhood responsible for recent bombings “think that the crackdown is necessary and support El-Sisi’s line that security and stability must come first,” said Anthony Skinner, director for Middle East and North Africa at the U.K.-based risk analysis company Maplecroft.
Fifty-nine percent of people polled in Egypt by the Pew Research Center in May said democracy was their preferred system of governance, down from 66 percent a year earlier. Respondents said they viewed stability as more important than democracy by 54 to 44 percent.
El-Dassas is Hamdy’s first feature-length film. The movie, which opened on May 21, played in five cinemas in Cairo and Alexandria. He’s also made three short films, including one about the threat of atheism to Egyptian society.
Laden with references to Mursi’s exit, it pits a noble army officer against the evil Hassan El-Dassas and his tribe of zombies. When El-Dassas slays the military hero, he’s faced with a vengeful son.
Hamdy said El-Dassas represents the Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna, while a house he and the officer fight over symbolizes the Egyptian people. The son is El-Sisi.
“The movie tells the story of the destruction and betrayal by the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters, and the horror people saw,” Hamdy said in an interview. “It’s the story of the forces and fears that led to the June 30 moment,” he said, referring to the demonstrations that preceded the eviction of Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, who won a 2012 poll with 52 percent of votes.
The film’s black-and-white portrayal of what ails Egypt finds an echo in government policy.
“The state isn’t just playing an authoritarian role, it’s also playing a patriarchal role,” Mubarak said. Officials are determining “what’s good for the people to watch and read and what’s not,” he said.
He cited the example of Halawet Roh, or Beauty of Spirit, a film pulled from cinemas in April for being too sexy after a direct intervention by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab.
In an interview with the CBC channel on May 17, the premier defended his decision. “I fully believe in the freedom of expression and thought, but the prime minister is responsible before God and before his people to protect the basic values of the society,” he said.
Singer Mohamed Mohsen, who rose to fame during the 2011 uprising after performing in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and is known for his political song, is one of those out of favor. Mohsen was escorted off stage in March shortly before he was to perform at an arts festival attended by El-Sisi.
“We made this revolution just to be able to speak up, sing and raise our free voices,” Mohsen said. “There’s no power whatsoever able to take back this space and if someone thinks he can, he’s definitely going to lose the battle.”