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Youth dance to Mahraganat music at a wedding in Salam City, a suburb of Cairo, March 5, 2015. © 2015 AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy

(Beirut) – An Egyptian court sentenced two singers to a year in prison and fines on March 28, 2022, on charges that violate their right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should announce that it will not enforce the court judgment and will take steps to repeal the cybercrime law articles criminalizing free expression.

The Alexandria Economic Court convicted the singers, Hamo Beeka and Omar Kamal, on vague charges of “violating family values in Egyptian society and profiting from a video including dancing and singing.” The charges stem from an October 2020 video showing the two men singing and dancing along with a Brazilian belly dancer. The court sentenced them to one year in prison and a 10,000 EGP (USD 538) fine, with an additional 10,000 EGP fee to suspend the prison sentences.

“Egyptian authorities should not prosecute musicians solely for their artistic expression,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The poorly defined restrictions used to convict these men should be repealed.”

The verdict against Beeka and Kamal comes as part of a larger crackdown targeting “mahraganat” singers and artistic work deemed antithetical to Egyptian values, including bans on performing certain genres in public and dismissals of artists from the Musicians’ Syndicate. Mahraganant is a relatively new and hugely popular genre of low-budget Egyptian electronic music developed since 2007, often portraying stories from the lives and struggles of lower-income Egyptians.

On October 28, 2020, Kamal posted a video to his YouTube account showing himself and Beeka singing and dancing with the belly dancer. The case began later that year, local media reported, after someone allegedly complained to the Alexandria prosecutor that the video violated “family values,” a crime under article 25 of Law No. 175 of 2018 Regarding Anti-Cyber and Information Technology Crimes.

Egyptian authorities often rely on the abusive and ill-defined family values charge to exert control of social media. Since 2020, Egyptian authorities have arrested and prosecuted at least 12 female social media influencers accused of violating the charge, and courts sentenced many to hefty fines and prison terms of up to 5 years.

In August 2020, Masaar, a local rights group, submitted a defense memorandum in relation to a case then before the Cairo Misdemeanor Appellate Court, contending that the charge is unconstitutional.

A lawyer who specializes in freedom of speech cases told Human Rights Watch that rights lawyers had submitted similar memorandums over the past two years regarding seven other cases, hoping that a court would refer the matter to the constitutional court to rule on its constitutionality but that has not happened.

The Musicians’ Syndicate, the government body that regulates the work of musicians, banned Kamal from working as a professional musician four times between 2020-2022 for his lyrics that include words such as “alcohol” and “hashish.” The bans are often not limited to a time frame.

Under the Acting, Cinematic, and Musical Professions Syndicates Law, musicians in Egypt need to be members of the Musicians’ Syndicate or require a special performance permit issued by the syndicate to perform legally.

On November 19, 2021, the Musicians’ Syndicate banned 19 popular mahraganat singers, including Beeka, from performing publicly and withdrew their annual performance permits. The syndicate’s head, Hany Shaker, claimed in a November 2021 television interview that the ban aims to “purify the situation” and that he is against “bad words and sounds.”

Earlier, on October 3, 2021, the syndicate banned Marwan Pablo, a popular Egyptian rapper, from performing in public after he featured in his concert a Palestinian rapper who sang a modified version of a popular Islamic hymn. Pablo “underestimated the hymn and hollowed it out,” the syndicate said in a media statement.

In November 2021, Shaker announced that the syndicate would stop issuing performance permits for Mohamed Ramadan, an actor, after he appeared shirtless during some concerts. “Ramadan committed to me that he will wear reasonable clothes in his concert, but he didn’t,” Shaker said in a news conference.

Sara Ramadan, no relation to Mohamed, a researcher at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, an Egyptian rights group, told Human Rights Watch that the government empowered the board of the Musicians’ Syndicate to restrict its members’ freedoms on the basis of alleged “morality violations.”

“Art cannot be like that [mahraganat] in President al-Sisi’s era. We are moving toward the new republic and art like that is not accepted,” Shaker said in a November 2021 television statement.

Egypt is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which permits restricting freedom of speech due to public morals, but such restrictions cannot be arbitrary and need to be based on clear law that set out the prohibitions in a way that people can reasonably predict what constitutes a violation. Any speech restrictions should be proportionate and cannot be discriminatory.

“The Musicians’ Syndicate should end its baseless censorship of artistic works on the basis of vague morality charges,” Stork said.

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