Egypt police shut down screening of banned thriller

CAIRO — Egyptian police raided a tiny alternative film venue in Cairo last week to prevent the screening of a thriller critical of law enforcement that has been banned, a venue staffer said, the latest in the country's litany of obstruction of free speech and artistic expression.

The officers prevented "The Nile Hilton Incident" from being played in a makeshift, 25-seat theater because it was a downloaded copy that didn't have government permission to be shown, the staff member said, speaking on condition of anonymity and requesting that the venue's name be withheld for fear of repercussions.

The move highlights Egyptian authorities' obsession with censorship during the country's strongest ever crackdown on dissent, even as they host the 39th Cairo International Film Festival and attempt to recast the country as open-minded via highly scripted "international" events.

The film, by Swedish-Egyptian director Tarik Saleh, is a murder mystery set in Egypt that addresses abuse of power and police corruption. It has won several accolades abroad, including the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

But it has not been allowed to screen at either the current festival or November's smaller, Panorama of the European Film festival, also in Cairo. The ban echoes last year's action against "Last Days of the City" by Egyptian director Tamer El Said, whose film was feted abroad but blocked from cinemas in Egypt.

Movies forbidden in Egypt can later be seen on internet streaming services, although showing them to audiences requires permission from state authorities.

Censorship is a longstanding tradition in modern Egypt, although it softened arguably toward the end longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak's rule, and later his elected Islamist successor Mohammed Morsi, who fumbled at the levers of power during his divisive year in office. But it returned in force under the leadership of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the former general who led Morsi's overthrow.

This year, authorities extended their crackdown to the internet, blocking hundreds of news sites and services containing information critical of authorities, as well as pages offering downloads of software to circumvent such bans.

They also targeted homosexuals and members of the LGBT community after a rainbow flag was waved at a September rock concert, arresting dozens under blasphemy and debauchery laws based on their perceived sexual orientation.

Upon forcing out Morsi and seizing power in 2013 during mass demonstrations, authorities declared war on terrorism that at first focused on his Islamist supporters but later included liberal and secular activists. Tens of thousands have been detained, some for simply posting comments deemed contrary to the state.

Meanwhile, a long-running insurgency in the northern Sinai Peninsula picked up dramatically and spread to the mainland, where attacks shifted focus from the police and authorities to civilians. Last week, gunmen killed 305 worshippers at a mosque in north Sinai, the country's worst ever terror attack.

Simultaneously, the government has hired a string of international PR firms to burnish its image, describing itself as a country of "tolerance" in one recent ad. Earlier this month, el-Sissi hosted an "international youth summit" slammed by critics and rights groups as a propaganda show steeped in hypocrisy given that so many youth with opinions diverging from the government's languish in jail.

Speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, one jury member from Cairo's current film festival noted the climate as follows: "They told us not to say anything political."

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Follow Brian Rohan on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/brian_rohan

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