Singing a crime: On the judicial police powers of the Musicians Syndicate

In November, Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend granted the Musicians Syndicate judicial police powers during a meeting with celebrity singer and syndicate head Hany Shaker.

Zend’s decree granted these powers (applicable in the context of crimes concerning the mandates of the acting, cinema and music professions) to three members of the syndicate board nominated by Shaker: Reda Ragab, first deputy of the syndicate and former dean of the Institute of Arabic Music; musician Mohamed Abu Zeid, second deputy and leader of the national orchestra; and Alaa Salama, board member and professor at the conservatoire.

What are judicial police powers?

The board members now have the right to issue warrants against people implicated in a crime that falls under the artistic syndicates law, conduct searches and arrests, accept complaints and reports from citizens, prepare minutes, collect information on the suspects and send reports directly to the prosecution.

A 1978 law that was amended in 2003 allows people with judicial police powers to arrest a suspect and, if they are caught in the act, to present them to the prosecution. According to the law of criminal procedures, if the judicial arrest officer arrives at the site of an interrupted crime, he or she has the right to prevent those present from leaving until a report has been prepared and to summon any person who could provide more information on the incident. If anyone disobeys the officer’s orders, or if any person summoned refuses to show up, “the officer should mention that in the report and the offender will receive a fine.”

What are the relevant crimes?

According to Article 5 of the artistic syndicates law, “no person is to work in the musical arts unless they are a working member of the syndicate.” The syndicate board can issue non-syndicated musicians temporary permits for a specific engagement or renewable time period: “The applicant for the permit will pay a fee to the syndicate in exchange for enforcing the contract, not exceeding — according to the respective category — a sum of LE10,000. If applicants are non-Egyptians, the maximum fee is LE20,000. The bylaws of each syndicate defines the categories. Contracting or hiring non-syndicate members in the absence of a permit is prohibited.”

“Violating the provisions of Article 5 of this law is punishable by imprisonment of between one and three months and/or a fine of between LE2,000 and LE20,000,” the law reads. Thus the crimes mentioned in the decree by the justice minister are working in music, including “singing in all its different forms, playing all kinds of musical instruments, musical composition, composing, music distribution, leading an orchestra and music history” without a syndicate permit or membership, as well as contracting or hiring non-members or non-permit-holders.

What is music practitioners’ problem with the decree?

  1. Zend’s 2015 decree grants the syndicate alone the right to license singers and musicians to “work” in music, without any differentiation between practicing music as a profession and practicing it as a hobby or form of self-expression, which allows it to prevent a person from exercising their freedom of expression through music or practicing it as a hobby, in violation of Articles 65 and 67 of the 2014 Constitution.

  2. Issued in 1978, the original law has not been changed to accommodate contemporary developments. It does not address cases where the musician is performer or lyricist and producer, as is the case with much alternative music. The law talks about contracting and employment, but in many cases there is no contract because the musician is the same person as the producer. What will the syndicate enforce in that case? And if there is no profit, which is generally the case, where will music practitioners get the money for the permit from? Yet, there are no exemptions in the law.

  3. The financial value of the permits is determined according to what the law calls “the categorical classification” specified by the syndicate’s internal bylaws. There is no transparency or available information concerning the criteria defining categories or estimated permits costs. Is it determined depending on the contract, theater, ticket price, audience size or degree of fame of the musician or band? There is also no information regarding procedures for applying for a permit, whether the union can refuse to provide one, or whether it can be an annual permit rather than by performance.

  4. The penalties for what the law describes as “crimes in violation of the provisions of the law” include a prison sentence of one to three months, also in violation of Article 67 of the Constitution, which states that “no freedom-restricting sanction may be inflicted for crimes committed through publicizing artistic, literary or intellectual products.”

  5. The decree forces music practitioners to join the Musicians Syndicate, which is contrary to the principle of trade union freedom (freedom to join or not to join) stipulated in the Constitution and several international conventions endorsed by Egypt, such as the United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

  6. The provisions of the law can be used to extend the syndicate’s authority and control to online media, such as YouTube and SoundCloud, under the pretext that, as they are profitable, using them is “working in the field of music.”

  7. Intimidating non-members who practice music with possible arrest for performing or expressing themselves, or forcing them to pay a fine, is a severe restriction that could force many to abandon music, leaving a void in Egyptian society at a time when many have called for using the arts to confront terrorism, which does not thrive in an atmosphere of song and music, especially in areas where the state either does not provide artistic services or provides weak ones. We can therefore claim that terrorists are the main beneficiaries of these judicial police powers.

Why not just join the syndicate?

Apart from the fact that it is our right not to join without giving a reason, the syndicate is not an attractive professional institution and no real benefit is gained by joining it, other than avoiding its harm. In July 2015, only 2,145 out of 4,398 eligible members (i.e., those paying the annual syndicate fees) in all of the 15 governorates in which it has branches voted in the syndicate elections. The latest estimated number of working, affiliated members was 12,000. Why are there so many non-voting members and why are many members not paying their membership fees?

  1. The syndicate does not provide members with studios free of charge or at a nominal fee for rehearsals or recording, nor does it provide free theaters for ticketed performances or festivals. It does not subsidize musical productions, workshops or meetings for education, development or exchange with foreign musicians. In short, joining the syndicate does not come with any benefits for musicians.

  2. The syndicate’s major administrative problems, which are clear even to non-members, show the lack of specific criteria for decisions, clear transparent financial policy or effective internal auditing policy. These deficiencies indicate the probability of administrative and financial corruption, which were the subject of widely reported disputes in 2013 between Iman Darwish and Mostafa Kamal, two former syndicate heads. They also allowed the suspension of Hamza Nemra’s membership in February 2015 for his political views and support for the thought of the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood. At the time, syndicate head Mostafa Kamel denied any knowledge of the decision, which was subsequently reversed. On Twitter, Kamel wrote that he had not recently been to the syndicate, that he was against Nemra’s suspension and that the signature on the decision was his, but used without his knowledge or permission.

    In reality, the syndicate can ban singers from singing for any reason considered valid by the syndicate head. Asala Nasry was banned from singing during the term of Mounir al-Wessimy because of her “repeated insults against the great musician Helmy Bakr.” Lebanese singer Rulla Saad was banned for arguing with Lebanese singer Haifa Wahbe. Sherine Abdel Wahab was banned during Darwish’s term in February 2012 for addressing “insulting sentences to the head of the Musicians Syndicate.” Wessimy banned Carol Samaha from singing in Egypt in August 2008 because of what the syndicate described as “a round of hot dancing” during a concert in a tourist resort on the North Coast. Eventually Samaha met with Wessimy to explain the misunderstanding, according to her press office, and the explanation was that she was performing a new type of dance the syndicate head didn’t know about: tango.

  3. There is a wide gap between the musical vision and practices of the syndicate’s council and head, and the music present on the streets and listened to by the people. There have been no serious attempts to narrow this gap or understand why it exists. Thus continues the status quo, preventing the development of music but perpetuating various problems.

  4. The prevailing culture inside the syndicate is related to its role in providing financial help to members during crises and organizing pensions and health insurance, although this is only one objective (no. 7) of the nine objectives mentioned in Article 3 of the 1978 law governing artistic syndicates, among which is raising the artistic and knowledge level of members, providing members with jobs, maintaining heritage and developing heritage in accordance with international progress, merging originality with modernity, contributing to curriculum development throughout the various educational stages, encouraging artistic and creative studies and supporting members’ rights to public performance.

Despite that, the union does not perform that one much-discussed role (no. 7) in an acceptable manner.

In his last interview a few days before his death in March 2015, the great monologist Hamada Sultan told Isaad Younis on her program “Sahbet al-Saada” (“Her Majesty,” aired on the privately owned satellite channel CBC) that both the actors and musicians syndicates — for he was a member of both — ignored his requests for help during his illness.

“They tell you, we serve the members,” he said. “They don’t serve anybody. They’re lying. The late Kafr al-Sheikh Governor Mohamed Ibrahim Agwa, God bless his soul, gave me LE10,000 for my eye operation. I took the report and bills to both syndicates, they did not pay me a penny. Then they get upset and say we attack them. What are you upset about? Let any of them speak up if they had given me anything. At the end I still say God is my protector and may God give you the strength to do good, and not only evil. That’s all.”

Singing has become a crime for which one may be arrested during the term of Hany Shaker, the “prince of Arabic song.” He declared that judicial arrest powers were one of the syndicate’s old demands and that he managed to obtain it. This is true. The matter is not new. Most members think the decree will support them by preventing their non-syndicated competitors from practicing, and thus reduce the pressure of competition. They think they will eventually benefit from the fees paid to the syndicate for permits. They think the main problem they face is that of unsyndicated musicians. Maybe.

But there are other points that are more certain: Egypt’s deteriorating music industry needs more than long arms for silencing musicians and collecting money from them in exchange for letting them escape police reports. To confront the cacophony that fills our street and surrounds us to the extent that it has become a way of life, shaping our tastes, to confront the inadequate living of syndicate members and non-members alike, to reclaim for Egyptian music its deserved place in Arabic music, the syndicate needs to accept “the other,” that which it does not understand, that which it does not listen to. The syndicate needs solutions that are not simple. It and other arts syndicates in Egypt need imagination. That is a major matter; if only they knew.

Note: Representing composer Ayman Helmy, the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights has filed a lawsuit with the Administrative Court demanding the minister of justice cancel the decree to grant judicial police powers to some members of the Musicians Syndicate. Here is a link for more details. See update here.

This article was originally published in Arabic on Za2ed18 in November 2015.

Ayman Helmy 

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