By Bassem Sabry
The recent decision by Egypt’s government to pull the movie “Halawet Roh” (Beauty of Spirit) from the theaters and send it back to the censorship board for review has raised quite the controversy in the country. The substantially erotic movie, based on the Italian movie “Malena” and starring Lebanese singer and regional sex icon Haifa Wehbe, was criticized by many as being too salacious. The movie was also criticized for featuring a young child in a lead role in a manner that both exposed the child on set to inappropriately erotic and violent scenes, as well as making this child a potential bad influence for the many minors who are expected to eventually see the movie, whether ripped online or purchased through [unofficial] street vendors, despite the film’s “adults only” rating.
The debate over Wehbe’s movie and censorship at large, as well as the fact that the movie was pulled by executive decision, comes with a lot of political significance at this particular point in time in Egypt. The current military-backed political order in the country has been established over the idea that the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood almost a year ago was necessary to stop Egypt from becoming another theocratic Iran or (ironically, one of the biggest supporters of the current administration) Saudi Arabia.
Pulling a movie from theaters in the name of protecting public morality obviously raises many questions and comparisons as to why would that be OK under the current regime but not perhaps under the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Azhar has, as expected, also been strongly against the film, with one leading scholar calling for the filmmakers to be tried). The Egyptian Creativity Front’s statement even alluded to a case that received much media and public denunciation following an on-air controversy that arose when the former Brotherhood head of the Egyptian Shura council, Ahmed Fahmy, boarding an EgyptAir flight, reportedly protested a classic Arabic movie being exhibited because it contained a kiss. Fahmy expressed his disapproval of the movie being shown and the film was stopped, only for it to be resumed due to protests from the other passengers and the flight crew, according to the reports, with the screens facing Fahmy and his delegation closed. EgyptAir then issued a statement in which it reaffirmed the film would remain on the in-flight entertainment lineup.
The situation also raises the profound question of what exactly is the acceptable “red line” for what can be exhibited and what cannot, as well as who decides that. The question becomes even more substantial, especially as this is certainly not the first movie featuring erotic content or scantily clad actresses over the past years, with many films coming from the same producer as Wehbe’s feature, all of which pretty much made it to the theaters — amid the usual critical calls for “good and clean cinema” to be produced in response to such movies — and in many cases to record ticket sales.
The debate also brings forward once more the realization that, despite all the claims that Egypt now stands against theocratic government and that Egyptians have revolted against the Brotherhood, the reality is that the country remains very much a conservative country. A Baseera poll showed that 67% of respondents said they supported the government’s decision, with 24% either neutral or disinterested, and 9% against. While across age segments the prevailing sentiment was an endorsement of the government’s pulling the movie, respondents less than 30 years of age were (relatively) the most against the decision at 14%, compared with only 3% of respondents over 50 years of age being against the decision, highlighting some degree of an age divide. Also remarkably, higher-educated respondents endorsed the decision more than the less educated: 83.5% of of college educated respondents were supportive of the withdrawal of the film, with 4.1% against the decision and 12.4% without an opinion. Those with middling education levels or less had the highest apathy rate to the question at 33.1%, but also had the highest disapproval rate of the decision at 10.9% and the lowest support of the decision at 56%.
In all events, the movie is likely to be released again with a few scenes cut. But this only symbolizes the start of what might end up being the most defining and profound chapter in the long-protracted debate over freedom of expression in the country. It is also somewhat of a microcosm of what the interplay between the various and often conflicting components of the country’s culture and politics could mean for Egypt’s unique national identity in, and beyond, a revolutionary era.
By Bassem Sabry