Egypt courts punish singers for 'insults' and 'debauchery'

CAIRO — Egyptian courts have sentenced two singers to prison time for seemingly tame behavior deemed threatening to society in a country growing increasingly repressive on all fronts.

One, the famous singer Sherine Abdel-Wahab, was given six months over a joke suggesting that the Nile River is polluted, which prosecutors used to accuse her of insulting the state. A fan had asked her to sing one of her popular songs referring to drinking from the river, Egypt's lifeline, to which she playfully suggested that it's safer to drink bottled water.

The other, little-known Laila Amer, was sentenced to two years for inciting "debauchery and immorality" with a music video in which she plays a downtrodden but belly-dancing housewife complaining to her husband about his bossy mother. The name of the song, "Bos Omak," is a play on words with a popular Arabic profanity.

The charges, while not uncommon in matters of morality in conservative Egypt, come at a time when free speech in general is under assault by authorities and tolerance for different opinions seems to be reaching an all-time low ahead of next month's presidential election, in which President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is set to win after other potential candidates were forced out of the race.

"Fundamentally this is a conservative regime that seeks in part to ground its legitimacy in its ability to defend the country's 'moral code,'" said Timothy Kaldas of the U.S.-based Tahrir Institute. "It reflects a long-term effort to demonstrate it's no less committed to morality than the Islamists it has displaced."

El-Sissi, who overthrew his divisive Islamist predecessor in 2013, almost certainly will take a second mandate in March given that all serious competitors in the race have been disqualified or intimidated into dropping out. He faces only a single adversary, an obscure politician who supports him and registered at the last minute when it became clear no one else could face el-Sissi.

Muslim-majority Egypt has steadily grown more conservative over the past half century, although it maintains relatively vibrant arts and music scenes and is far more liberal than Gulf Arab countries.

Prosecutions for moral issues have grown, however, under el-Sissi's leadership, which has ushered in the country's fiercest crackdown on dissent and freedoms in its modern history.

In September, authorities arrested dozens of people after several waved an LGBT rainbow flag at a Cairo concert by a popular Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly gay. The band, Mashrou' Leila, was later banned from performing in Egypt.

In December, another female singer named Shaimaa Ahmed faced similar charges to Amer over what was deemed racy content, being sentenced to two years in prison, reduced to one year on appeal. Her video showed her dancing in her underwear and suggestively licking an apple and eating a banana before a classroom of young men.

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