On the swift un-banning of Karma, and the popular notion of the ‘dissident artist’

For many, one of the most memorable images from June 30, 2013, is the bird’s eye footage of the mass protests filling the streets, captured by helicopters flying over the capital. The project was perhaps the first of its kind with such a broad scope since the start of the Egyptian revolution almost three years earlier, and it is interesting to note that the director of the TV spectacle is none other than so-called “dissident” filmmaker Khaled Youssef, as he is often described by the media due to his outspoken support for the January 25 revolution. However, as the figure behind this iconic footage, filmed from a military helicopter, he also cemented his status as one of the figureheads of the June 30 movement.

Five years later, in June 2018, we saw anger spread online among Egyptian filmmaking circles in response to the Censorship Board’s decision to withdraw the screening permit for director and parliamentarian Youssef’s latest and first post-2011 film, Karma. The board’s announcement was swiftly followed by statements of condemnation and collective resignations, all pleading with the president to salvage “freedom of expression in Egypt.” Hardly a few hours had passed, however, before the issue was resolved. The decision, outlined in government documents, signed, stamped and released in the afternoon of June 11, was revoked a little after midnight, as announced by Youssef in a video posted on his Facebook page at 5 am.

This prompt response to the support for Youssef and his film inevitably poses a number of questions, some concerning the processes of the Censorship Board, and others relating to other works of art that have had their licenses similarly revoked, but never permitted an opportunity to negotiate the ban. It also raises questions regarding Youssef and the image he projects, both as a filmmaker and public figure.

A familiarity with the history of censorship in Egypt is essential to understanding the current climate of the Egyptian arts and culture scene and to contextualizing the reactions to the film’s banning. A look at the brief history of censorship in Egypt can be found here.

Surprising statements of surprise

Incidents like this are important, not because they illustrate a broader struggle between art and censorship, but rather highlight the impetus behind the decision to establish bodies tasked with censoring works of art over the past century. These institutions exist to regulate the conditions in which art is produced, and these attempts at regulation, as is clear from the historical sequence of events, are in turn a good indicator of the general mood of those in power at any given time.

The public release of artistic works is a natural and logical step in the process of artistic production, and the role played by the Censorship Board in that process is one of  disruption. We only hear about the board when it has denied a permit or imposed a ban on the screening of a film, and an outcry ensues.

As such, every time someone issues a statement expressing surprise at these acts, I can’t help but wonder: Is this person astonished because they were under the impression that the Censorship Board had other functions besides banning artistic works? Or is it because they were not expecting that a particular artistic work would be banned? Or, are they puzzled that authorities have not revealed the reason behind their decision? And, in cases when a decision to ban an artwork is backed up with reasons, would these justify it?

My own bewilderment stems not from news of the bans and license revocations themselves, but rather from the fact that the resulting statements of astonishment are sometimes made by artists and prominent figures on the local arts and culture scene, who should be familiar with the current, oppressive climate.

These questions occupy my mind until the wider discussion fizzles out, either because it becomes clear that the ban will remain in place, as happened with director Tamer El Said’s In the Last Days of the City (2016), or because the ban is revoked, as happened with Youssef’s Karma.  

Against this backdrop, I can never keep up with the race to express support and unconditional solidarity with the makers of banned works, except in a few rare instances. These bans do not astonish me, neither do I find them especially alarming, because this is the normal state of affairs. To preempt future outbursts of shock and statements of surprise, I will draw your attention to the Censorship Board’s comprehensive plan to exert more control over artistic work, in Cairo and beyond. Culture Minister Inas Abdel Dayem issued several executive orders on March 12 to establish local branches of the Censorship Board inside state-run cultural centers in seven different governorates: Giza, South Sinai, Assiut, Luxor, Aswan, Marsa Matrouh and the Red Sea. The order became effective as of April. It seems the state has misunderstood artists’ and intellectuals’ continuous calls to decentralize cultural services, but let us move on.  

A special shout-out to the Censorship Board

The withdrawal of the screening permit for Karma came on June 11. The documents were stamped and signed by the head of the board, Khaled Abdel Gelil, and referenced a number of laws justifying the decision, claiming that the film “violated its licensing terms.”

I can only commend the Censorship Board for issuing its decision in the form of a legally viable document, and directly addressing it to the concerned parties, allowing them to take the necessary measures to contest the decision. Without such a document, the artist could not prove anything at all, as was the case with In the Last Days of the City. To this day, the board has not issued any documents related to the ban in writing, hampering all attempts by the film’s crew to screen it in Egypt.

The statement issued by artists and public figures in response to the banning of Youssef’s film — which most artists would consider an attempt to restrict freedom of expression, a violation of the public’s right to access cultural products and an act of moral custodianship — reads as such: “Do we really appeal to Egypt’s soft power with our tongues, then slay it with our hands? Is the film to be screened regionally and internationally, but not in its own country? Is this how we face the forces of darkness? By shedding precious blood in Sinai, while providing them with magical ammunition by banning a film that exposes the virulent poisons of sectarianism pumped through the body of our united nation? How can the constitution speak of the January 25 and June 30 revolutions, only for [the state] to open fire on one of their icons, director Khaled Youssef, attacking him first in parliament and then in his creative endeavors?”

The statement, written in an appalled tone, frames the incident as if it were the first of its kind in Egypt. However, anyone following the cultural situation in Egypt can see how the passage quoted above demonstrates, both  through what is said and unsaid, how this segment of society perceives its own position and that of other players within the film industry (in all its diversity), and more generally within the political and social context of the country. To them, the best course of action was to call on the president to “steer the film back on track and return the planet to its orbit,” without giving a thought to what can be done in order to prevent further incidents of a similar nature.

I will not delve into the dozens of similar events that have preceded this “painful shock,” all of which played out within view of the signatories of this statement and of the venerable members of the Film Committee attached to the Supreme Council Of Cultural Affairs, who, for their part, took it upon themselves to save the industry from tyranny and oppression and submitted a sharply written collective resignation in protest of the decision. But unlike the artists’ statement of condemnation, the Film Committee’s resignation conveyed a firm political position, and demanded a plan to protect the freedom of filmmakers.

The position expressed by the signatories of the first statement, considering Youssef’s film “a tool of soft power to fight evil,” rubbed some artists and filmmakers the wrong way. Nobody could quite make out what that meant. Are other  banned works not “soft” enough to fight “evil?” Is there some sort of manual on how to create work that is impactful enough to “combat the evil forces of darkness?”

I’d say the latest installment of the Karma ban played out exactly the way any creator whose work has been banned would have wished. The Censorship Board backed down on its decision, and ensured that the appropriate bodies took the necessary actions to reverse the ban. Once again, I must applaud the board for publishing their retraction of the ban in written form, stamped, backed by legislation and signed by the right people.

Khaled Youssef as a full package: ‘Weary dissident,’ ‘banned artist’ and patriot

It is fairly common knowledge that Youssef studied as an engineer before becoming a filmmaker and member of Parliament for Qalyubiya Governorate. He was a Nasserite and involved in student politics in the 1980s at the University of Zagazig’s engineering faculty, which admitted only the highest-scoring students, and was the head of the student union in 1988–1989.

Perhaps the most illustrative example of the image the director tries to portray of himself is his own Wikipedia page. Youssef’s entry lingers on his involvement in student activism and the opportunities it gave him to become acquainted with artists and public figures, notably director Youssef Chahine, whose “brigade of knowledge seekers” he soon joined as an assistant director. He became indispensable to Chahine, and, due to his deteriorating health, was almost single-handedly in charge on the set of his 2007 film Heyya Fawda? (Chaos), the last of Chahine’s cinematic works.

He also directed 11 films of his own between 2000 and 2011, among them the highly controversial (and problematic in its portrayal of the lower income segments of Egyptian society) Heena Maysara (Waiting for Better Times, 2007), which, according to Youssef’s Wikipedia page at least, “strengthened the spirit of rebellion that eventually led to the January 25 revolution.”

Youssef became one of the most widely known TV personalities, during the revolution. At the time of the military-backed ousting of former Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi on June 30, 2013, he was again one of its go-to public figures. And when the 2015 parliamentary elections came around, he ran for a seat and won, claiming it was “for the sake of cinema.”

He continues to be portrayed as a conscientious Nasserite and a controversial artist, one who remains a devout patriot despite persecution by the censors. He even finds it in himself to be “grateful for the authorities’ efforts to permit the screening of his film,” as he said in his video statement announcing the ban’s reversal. And now Karma has become a prototype: the “banned” film which would not have been screened if it weren’t for the strong stance adopted by the masses of filmmakers, and the benevolence of the “sovereign entities” that Youssef thanks in his video.

And so, Youssef has come to embody state-approved, mainstream notion of the “dissident artist.” He sometimes opposes state bodies, but always stands by his country and its president in times of need. An engineer by training, he is distinguished and smart in the traditional sense, and navigates the thin line between dissent and protecting the nation from sedition. He engages in constructive criticism of the authorities, but supports them during crises.

He keeps his cool when confronted with a ban on his work, because he is absolutely confident that its officials would not let a symbol like himself, with all his useful attributes, be left by the wayside — not without a written document at least. Above all, he is confident that the authorities would not treat him the way they do other artists who aren’t Khaled Youssef.

Hakim Abdel Naim