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Middle East

Egypt's artists face nuanced challenges in post-revolution climate

Following Egypt's 2011 revolution, artists enjoyed a brief moment of unbridled freedom of expression. But as the political establishment shifted, so did the ways they maneuvered in society.

After assisting the military in ousting Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, the political establishment under the leadership of former military chief, now president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, has continued to violate citizens' rights, according to human rights organizations.

However, Egypt's artists and intellectuals express a mélange of hope and fear for the country's future. While some point to change, others say not much has occurred.

'Over romanticized'

Samia Mehrez, director of the Center for Translation Studies and professor of Arabic literature at the American University in Cairo, has written extensively on the country's culture wars and post-revolution cultural production. Mehrez told DW that the cultural scene resents the fact that the 2011 uprising is considered its inception.

"We have over romanticized the January 2011 moment," she said. "It's not the beginning moment, it is the climatic moment. Things have been building up, not only politically but also culturally."

"To think that everything started then is a fallacy. We can actually trace back dissent to 2005, when [ousted longtime leader Hosni] Mubarak was trying to change the constitution to groom his son as his heir."

Mehrez added that demonstrations had occurred since 2005 and paved the way for the "performative" moment at Tahrir Square, considered the revolution's epicenter.

Ägypten - Künstler in Kairo

Asem Tag, also known by his alias $$$TAG$$$, created Vent to offer artists a space to experiment

Asem Tag, an electronic music artist and co-founder of Vent, considered downtown Cairo's underground music hub, agreed with Mehrez. While he has been involved in the development of a blossoming independent music scene, he said that he does not see a direct link between its growth and the revolution.

"I really can't find a logical or rational link between the revolution and the scene developing. I don't know. Maybe it's just a coincidence that it happened around the same time frame. But I don't really have anything to say about it. I'm just happy it happened," he said.

Tag added that while the independent music scene in Egypt has gained more attention in recent years, it nevertheless existed prior to the revolution.

New spaces, such as Vent, have emerged offering independent artists and musicians the ability to showcase their talent in an open environment. But the difference between Egypt's public and private spaces has left a gap in artists' ability to freely express themselves.

Filmmakers, on the other hand, face some of the starkest challenges in performing their trade.

'All kinds of harassment'

In an interview with DW, filmmaker Mohamed Siam, who won best documentary at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival, noted that the January 2011 uprising was a turning point for documentary filmmaking in Egypt. However, the stakes are high.

"I've shot in many different places, including Pakistan and India. But Egypt is one of the most difficult. I face all kinds of harassment. Whether you have permission or legal documents, everyone thinks you have an agenda when you're shooting on the streets," Siam told DW.

"And if someone says your from Al-Jazeera, you can be beaten or have everything stolen."

Al-Jazeera received significant attention from the Egyptian government after the Qatari news organization was accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic-oriented social organization, which was banned in 2013 following Morsi's removal.

Independent filmmaker and visual artist Obada Khattab echoed Siam's sentiments.

Ägypten - Künstler in Kairo

Obada Khattab directed his first documentary "To Cairo With Love" in 2010

"It's very difficult now. It's difficult to gain permission to do a film. You have to go to the police…And for some specific TV channels, because they don't have a good relationship with the government, it's impossible," Khattab said.

Khattab made his cinematic debut in 2010, prior to the revolution, with a documentary on a drug dealer's wedding party in the slums of Cairo. A year after his debut, Khattab participated with the protests that brought down Mubarak. But he says a lot has changed since then.

"It's not stable for us to do art and film. Or at least to do it in a free way, especially if it's connected or deals with politics," he said.

The independent filmmaker was detained without charge in 2012 alongside a French photographer for filming in the streets. Though he was released after 24 hours, he said the reason behind the detention was to create fear.

"They meant to scare us more than anything else. And it's the same now…But what we did during the revolution, going down to Tahrir, I'm afraid that I can't do this again. The consequences would be worse today," he said.

While artists are facing challenges in Egypt, the environments they operate in are shifting. For many, emerging spaces provide some form of freedom of expression. But due to policing and stringent laws, the streets pose a different issue altogether.

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