No Laughing Matter: Egyptian Singer Silenced for Joke over Free Speech

In this Dec. 31, 2018 photo, Egyptian singer Sherine Abdel-Wahab performs during New Years' Eve, in Cairo, Egypt. Abdel-Wahab has been banned from performing in her home country after suggesting that it does not respect free speech. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Abdel Nasser)
AP Photo/Mahmoud Abdel Nasser

An Egpytian singer who made a joke about the lack of free speech in her homeland has been told she can no longer perform there.

A video clip circulated online shows Sherine Abdel-Wahab, during a performance in Bahrain, saying: “Here I can say whatever I want. In Egypt, anyone who talks gets imprisoned.”

The response from Egypt’s Musicians Union was to barr the singer, popularly known by her first name, from performing. It also summoned her to return home for questioning.

Samir Sabry, a pro-government lawyer with a reputation for moral vigilantism and suing celebrities, filed a complaint against the singer accusing her of “insulting Egypt and inviting suspicious rights groups to interfere in Egypt’s affairs.”

The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has long been a foe of free, open speech. In 2018 he ratified a law granting authorities the right to monitor social media users in the country as part of tightening internet controls.

Approved by parliament last July, the state’s Supreme Council for Media Regulations has the power to place people with more than 5,000 followers — on social media or with a personal blog or website — under supervision.

The council is authorised to suspend or block any personal account which “publishes or broadcasts fake news or anything (information) inciting violating the law, violence or hatred”, all of which means the joke by Sherine Abdel-Wahab was immediately deemed to be suspect.

Last year, Sherine was sentenced to six months in prison over a similar clip from a concert in which she joked that the Nile is polluted. The sentence was suspended upon appeal. She apologized for the remark, calling it a “bad joke.”

The singer, who hosts the Arabic version of “The Voice,” apologized again after the latest remarks in a TV interview aired late Friday, saying she was joking. She appealed to the president for mercy and insisted her loyalty to her country was true.

 “I am very tired. I made a mistake. I am sorry. I appeal to the president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, who is our father. I feel that I was persecuted. I did nothing. I love Egypt,” the singer said.

But Hany Shaker, the artist who heads the Egyptian Musicians Union, rejected her explanation. He said he had previously told Sherine to stop telling jokes on stage, which was a place for singing only, and informed her that she did not have a good sense of humour.

“Sherine’s last mistake – making fun of the Nile River – was a big one, and here is another catastrophe,” Shaker said, according to the Egypt Independent.

AP contributed to this report

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