A brief history of film censorship in Egypt

In 1986, a police officer filed a case to demand the ban of the film Lil-hub Qissa Ukhra (Love Has Another Story, by Raafat al-Mihi), because he believed a sex scene it contained showed actual intercourse and not just acting. Actors Yahia al-Fakharany and Maaly Zayed were interrogated by the vice crimes prosecution, as was Mihi, but they were all released. The officer had probably been troubled as an adolescent by a difficult existential question: are kisses in films real or simulations? The conviction that all kisses must be real saved him from an existential labyrinth. And it seems that he wasn’t the only troubled mind: the prosecution, which followed up on the case, shared his conviction. Indeed, so do all censorship officials in Egypt.

That incident gives a sense of the absurd state of censorship in Egypt, but the relationship between censors and cinema here has always been more complicated than just allowing or cutting sex scenes. As critic Samir Farid shows in his recently re-issued Tarikh al-Riqabah ala al-Sinema fi Misr (The History of Censorship in Egypt, 2002), this relationship underwent distinct phases between 1904 and 2001.

In 1954 Jacque Pascal outlined how censorship worked in the first part of the twentieth century, when Egypt was under British occupation, as “inhibiting the communication of anything that agitates the public, like battle scenes in times of war, or patriotic novels that evoke emotions in downtrodden nations.” The occupation authority tried to ban all artistic works discussing grievances, challenging the occupation, or anticipating a revolution in any way. One example was banning the 1938 film Lasheen, which tells of a revolt against an unjust ruler. This made sense given how concerned the occupiers and the king were about the possibility of an uprising like the 1879 Urabi Revolt or the 1919 Revolution.

But what was remarkable about censorship then was how any work that presented a negative image of the Egyptian state, particularly any that attempted to portray the poor or the depravity of the rich, was banned. This meant that filming poor in neighborhoods and the countryside, or using working-class and rural stories for inspiration was not allowed. They only exception was nightclubs: “Perhaps the only thing that the instructions [positively] refer to is filming nightclubs, if they are clean. In one specific article it says: In the case of filming nightclubs, they should not be dirty.”

The crisis triggered by actor Youssef Wahbi in 1926, when he announced his plans to play the role of Prophet Mohamed in a film, was a religious one, but the idea of displaying a certain public image of Egypt to the “other” had extended to Islam as well. This is evident in an article written by scholars at Al-Azhar, which argued against portraying the prophet because no matter how hard an actor would try to recall the image of that great and venerable personality, it would be “in extremely modest Arab garments and a Bedouin form, lacking the moral characteristics which complement the image, from which beauty emanates and perfection is realized.” The article also lays out concerns about including the conflicts that took place after the prophet’s death: “I am quite certain that the Ramsis [troupe] manager [Wahbi] reveres the Companions and believes that those events were not whims of the soul and the heart, but rather in defense of religion and an honest attempt in pursuit of truth. But who would clarify this for the western and American world, which as [Wahbi] tells us is ignorant of Islam and its reality?”

Political and social concerns continued to dictate censorship up to the 1952 revolution. After that, only one film was banned — for three years: Ahmed Badrakhan’s Allah Maana (With God on Our Side, 1955). When President Gamal Abdel Nasser watched it he decided that it didn’t require banning after all. Hussein Kamal’s Shai Min al-Khuf (A Glimpse of Fear, 1969), about a despotic leader, was almost banned, but despite the demands it wasn’t effectively blocked from screening.

Cinema’s real fight with censorship started when author Youssef El-Sebai became minister of culture before the 1973 war. Four films were temporarily banned: Youssef Chahine’s Al-Asfour (The Sparrow, 1972), Mamdouh Shoukry’s Za’ir al-Fajr (The Dawn Visitor, 1973), Sobhy Shafiq’s Al-Talaqi (The Encounter, 1977), and Khalil Shawky’s Genoun al-Shabab (The Madness of Youth, 1980). In the 1970s the censorship board introduced the approach of editing scenes out, instead of banning films. Several scenes that contained examples of administrative or police corruption in the pre-defeat state were cut from The Dawn Visitor.

Another crisis followed with Said Marzouk’s Al-Mozniboun (The Guilty, 1976), which was cut several times during its commercial run. Despite having awarded it a prize for best Egyptian film in 1976, the Ministry of Culture referred 15 censorship employees to the administrative prosecution for approving its screening and export. The charges included high treason.

Egypt’s filmmakers and film critics showed strong opposition to all these bans, but the fight was generally limited to the censorship authority and filmmakers. In the early 1980s a new side joined the fight. According to Farid, “the decision by the minister of culture to ban these two films [Hossam Eddin Mostafa’s Darb al-Hawa (Gusts of Wind) and Nader Galal’s Khamsa Baab (Gate 5), both 1983] revealed a tremendous fascist intensity in many Egyptian journalists, which erupted in society like a volcano as soon as it was given the green light. It also revealed the fact that the age of fear and lack of democracy planted an informant withinin many journalists, standing by to tip off the government.”

What’s more, following the incidents narrated in Farid’s book, one can identify another ally siding with the censors, and breaking community ties: filmmakers themselves. Director Kamal al-Sheikh, for example, denounced the vulgarity of Khamsa Baab and objected to its screening. “It’s the censorship authority’s duty to stop the production of banal films, setting standards like the health standards the Ministry of Health sets for restaurants to control disease,” he told the press. “Determining whether a film is morally base is easy, it’s not impossible as some would imagine.” When actor Sohair Ramzy pulled out of Said Marzouk’s Inqaz Ma Yumkin Inqazuh (Save Whatever is Possible, 1985) during shooting, she told the newspaper Al-Akhbar it was because she “found out it was a morally base film.”

In the 1980s, the censorship process was beginning to take on a new form: Instead of banning works directly, the censorship board left it up to the press to campaign for it to ban films.

In 1992, a film about assassinated Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali, known for his sharp criticism of Arab governments, couldn’t pass unnoticed. As part of the media campaign against it, Al-Akhbar newspaper published a cartoon by Abd al-Rahman al-Ghamrawy captioned “This is Naji al-Ali, whom [actor and producer] Nour al-Sherif wants to commemorate,” depicting a group of people holding the slogan “make love not war” while heading toward a woman taking off her clothes behind an American flag used as folding screen. Akhbar al-Youm added an arrow pointing at the woman and the caption: “A cartoon implying that Egypt is taking off its clothes, while the underwear represents the map of Sinai.”

The newspaper started a campaign against the film, and chief editor Ibrahim Seada called for blocking its screening at the Cairo film festival. The call was taken up by the festival’s administration, which formed a committee that included Kamal a-Sheikh, Ahmad Salih, and Salah Maray to evaluate the films sunmitted to the festival. The committee banned the film and six others: Sherif Yehia’s Al-Makhtufa, Samir Seif’s Shams al-Zanati (1991), Ahmed Yehia’s Samarah al-Amir (1992), Hussein Kamal’s Nuur al-‘Uyuun, and Ibrahim Afify’s Qabdat al-Hilaly, claiming that they were all below the festival’s standards.

Films such as Youssef Chahine‘s Al-Muhajir (The Emigrant, 1994) and Atef Hetata’s Al-Abwab al-Mughlaqa (The Closed Doors, 1999) were banned in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, as the expression “Egypt’s international image” resurfaced, in addition to “the western conspiracy” and “the war on religion.” It seemed as if censorship in Egypt was regressing to its early-20th-century state, as if Egypt doesn’t take one step forward in any field, because all parties from the right to the left, agree on forfeiting freedom, or rather agree that freedom has no value at all. Everyone is wearing military and religious hats to varying degrees, and the voices of those who believe in freedom has grown faint to the point of near inaudibility.

Translated by Amira Elmasry.

Ahmed Shawky Ali 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism