Cairo Cracks Down On Satirical Street Theater Troupe

As much as freedom of expression, the Atfal al-Shawrea (Street Children) troupe challenged the Sisi regime's control over freedom of assembly.

Still from one of the troupe's videos
Still from one of the troupe's videos
Mohamed Hamama and Shady Zalat

CAIRO â€" Egypt's latest assault on freedom of speech and expression has targeted a satirical street theater troupe in the capital for posting short satirical videos on the Internet. On Tuesday the prosecution extended the detention of four performers of the six-member Atfal al-Shawrea (Street Children) troupe by 15 days, pending investigation. A fifth member was ordered to be released and to pay a fine.

The members, aged 19 to 21, were targeted after they posted a short video on Facebook mocking people they call "worshipers of military shoes" and criticizing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his regime.

The troupe became active at the beginning of this year. Its six members choose a random place in the street to present a short show, filming themselves with a mobile phone, selfie style, and publishing it on Facebook. In fewer than five months, they have garnered much attention through the entertaining videos, which usually include singing and acting.

Videos vary in topic, mocking how pop songs and films tackle issues or satirizing social issues, as in the video called "For Those Who Don't Fast," in which they act out scenes borrowed from conversations between Egyptians during Ramadan.

The troupe recently began to address political issues that have included the potential water crisis from the major Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project and the recent concession of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, an incident that prompted the largest protests Egypt has seen since Sisi took power.

A close friend of members of Atfal al-Shawarea, who preferred to remain anonymous, explains that the troupe tries to comment on what’s going on in the country without focusing on political content: "There were videos on culture, just as there were videos on politics."

The arrests came just after the video denouncing Sisi and the "worshipers of military shoes." This may indicate that the main problem with these videos is not that they have a political outlook, but that they’re shot in the streets.

Children of the street

The friend close to the band doesn't consider any of Atfal al-Shawarea's acts as political. "The troupe members' lives consist of being out on the street all the time." Asked why they called themselves "Street Children," he says: "Sometimes they sleep in the street â€" they’re literally street children."

Filmmaker Salma al-Tarzi notes that being allowed to be present in public spaces is essential to freedom. She speaks of the problems she faces when working: "You have to get permits to shoot anywhere. Any attempt by people to organize themselves or to do any activity in a public space, regardless of how void some of these activities may be, represents a nuisance for the state."

Tarzi recalls the Ministry of Culture's attempt to contain graffiti artists after the 2011 revolution. "Graffiti, as an art practice, is dependent on public space, the street," she says.

Tarzi says the members of Atfal al-Shawarea met for the first time in a theater workshop and decided to take their experience to the street. She describes them as "a group of young people who started life without the resources to shoot in a specialized setting. So the street became their ready-made platform."

She says their decision to take to the streets consciously or unconsciously represents a break into public space.

Atfal al-Shawarea and graffiti artists present their work in the streets without obtaining permission, which some see as a violation of public space. But beyond the mere legal aspects of the question is a wider state policy regarding what constitutes a violation of rules regarding public space.

A 2015 street protest in Egypt â€" Photo: Alisdare1

In August 2014, security forces decided to put an end to the El Fann Midan initiative, an arts festival that started with the January 2011 revolution, held on the first Saturday of every month in the streets of cities across the country.

Poet Zein al-Abedine Fouad, one of the co-founders of El Fann Midan, told Raseef 22 that the festival had represented "an exceptional space of freedom that formed a genuine popular culture but annoyed the current regime. So the government blew it away, so it could retake the empty squares for itself and re-exert its control over public space all over again."

Off limits

Tarzi thinks that, as a citizen, she should be able to do what she wants in the street as long as it doesn't cause material harm to anyone. But the state insists on treating its citizens as guests, perhaps even unwanted ones.

Despite functioning in the street for a while, Atfal al-Shawarea came onto the security radar the moment they criticized the head of the state.

Although it is successful and popular among its fans online, the troupe has been criticized by supporters of the regime for its videos addressing sensitive political issues and criticizing the president. Comments on the their Facebook page include calls for the arrest of the troupe. Similar comments are found on a page that pretends to belong to the Egyptian police, where the troupe is described as having "humiliated the Egyptian people."

The troupe’s lawyer Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, thinks the prosecution decided to manipulate the case to make the offense a crime instead of a misdemeanor. That way, the troupe members are subject to a 15-day pre-trial detention period as opposed to four days, and they face a full prosecution rather than a partial one. It also means they will be charged in accordance with legal clauses that could lead to more severe penalties. Othman thinks there is an intention and a determination to detain and terrorize them without looking into the evidence against them.

If the arrest of these young people has, however, also spawned an online campaign in which people post selfies taken using a mirror, with the line "Does the camera phone scare you?" and the hashtag: #الحرية_لأطفال_الشوارع (Freedom for Atfal al-Shawarea). The viral nature of this campaign over the past week is a testament to the ongoing struggle for public space. It started in the virtual space provided by the Internet, but may end up back in the real space of the street, where the regime believes it can and must exert total control.

Translated by Lina Attalah

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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