Egypt punishes singer for insulting the Nile

Sherine Wahab / AFP

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.

Sherine Wahab / AFP

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.

Cairo Misdemeanour Court convicted her of spreading “false news.”

The short video of Sherine’s remarks went viral on social media websites last November, which led the pop star to write a statement of apology on her Facebook page, describing her previous remarks as “a silly joke” that did not mean to insult her country or offend her Egyptian fans.

“It was a silly joke and if time went back I wouldn’t say it of course,” she wrote, concluding her statement with “I am sorry.”

Sherine, one of the most popular singers in the Arab world, is still free on bail pending an appeal.

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, 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-Sisi is set to win after other potential candidates were forced out of the race.

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-Sisi’s leadership, which has ushered in the country’s fiercest crackdown on dissent and freedoms in its modern history.