As much as freedom of expression, the Atfal al-Shawrea (Street Children) troupe challenged the Sisi regime's control over freedom of assembly.
CAIRO — 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 — 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.
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A 2015 street protest in Egypt — 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."
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: #Ø§Ù„ØØ±ÙŠØ©_Ù„Ø£Ø·ÙØ§Ù„_Ø§Ù„Ø´ÙˆØ§Ø±Ø¹ (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