A few days before choreographer-dancer Sherin Hegazy’s contemporary dance performance Ya Sem was to take place on the AUC Falaki Theatre stage on 16-18 February, an apology appeared on the Facebook Event page stating that it was postponed “for unexpected reasons that are out of our hands”, namely the fact – not stated on Facebook – that the General Directorate for the Censorship of Artistic Works’ permission was not forthcoming, which was unexpected because the performance had won a prize at the ninth National Theatre Festival and was chosen as the closing show of the 23rd Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre in 2016. It also represented Egypt at Tunisia’s Carthage Theatre Days that year.
Produced by Ahmed El Attar’s Orient for Film and Theatre Productions, the show has benefited from the experience and skill of Ahmed Nagy, the company’s chief financial officer. But Nagy says that, though he has always been keen on working within the legal framework on the country, since the company was founded in 2007, the regulations imposed by the Theatrical Professions Syndicate and the Directorate have never been tougher.
“Before 2013, we could organise even large-scale events like the D-CAF festival without permissions, but then the situation changed dramatically, maybe because the independent scene became more influential. We now require Ministry of Manpower and Immigration permissions for foreign visiting artists, Censorship and Syndicate permissions for the foreign and Egyptian artists,Ministry of Interior permissions, Taxation Authority permissions, and so one. As if all that is not enough, however, we also have unique situations like that of Ya Sem.”
For her part Sherin Higazy, who has been staging and producing dance shows since 1998, said this was the first she heard of such a censorship protocol: “In the past we used to rent a space in which to perform and do our rehearsals. Sometimes we asked the space to be a coproducer, but whether or not they were interested in that they never asked us what we were doing or what the performance was about. They were only interested in the schedule.” As of 2013, however, Higazy was told by censorship employees that, since the performance will be open to the public with tickets sold, it must be licensed by the Directorate.
This turns out to be stipulated by Law 430/1955 amended by Law 38/1992-5, which – in the interest of public order, public morality and “the higher interests of the state” punishes those who engage in filming, recording, showing or broadcasting any work of art without a censorship permit with up to two years in prison and a fine of up to LE10 thousand (no less than LE5,000) or both; the law also states that the space used for such a show will be closed down for up to a month (no less than a week). Permits should be obtained prior to bringing any work to the public. In the case of Ya Sem, however, the red tape involved in obtaining the permit turns out to be far more complicated than the show’s content.
Law 35/1976 states that no one may practice an art associated with the the arts syndicates – Theatrical Professions, Cinema and Musical Professions – without being a member of the relevant syndicate or obtaining a work permit from it. To obtain the Censorship Authority’s permission, therefore, a performer must have prior clearance from the syndicate. Relying on this law, the syndicates have been burdening artists with red tape and charging them substantial fees. For Hegazy, the problem is further compounded by the lack of a contemporary dance category in the Theatrical Professions syndicate.
“Last year I was surprised to realise that every art space required me to have a work permit from the syndicate,” she says, “which never used to be the case.” For dancers there is one of two choices: ballet, and belly dancing; and to be classified as a ballet dancer she has to be a graduate of the Ballet Academy or to be appointed at one of the Opera House’s companies, she had to obtain a belly dancer’s work permit, which costs her an annual LE1,000.
When she applied for the censorship permit to perform at the Falaki Theatre, Hegazy was told she needed to have a a belly dancer’s tax records to ensure that she did not owe the state money. It is generally assumed that belly dancers earn a great deal, something that does not apply to contemporary dancers. Higazy says that put an end to that: “If I am performing for a few nights a year with almost no income from my performances, how can I pay the taxes owed by the average belly dancer.”
Ezzat Ismail, another contemporary choreographer-dancer and the founder of a contemporary dance studio, faced the same problem last year when about to perform at the Falaki Theatre.
“I had organised contemporary dance events since 2011, including the Contemporary Dance Night Festival, on the two stages available to independent contemporary dancers in Cairo: the Falaki Theatre, and the Rawabet Art Space. But last year Falaki informed me that a permit from the syndicate was required. Though it was really tough to go through all of this paperwork and collect all the fees I was luckier than others because we have a ballet dancer among the performers who is a syndicate member. Because of him the syndicate classified our performance ballet and gave us a temporary two-night permit. But we had to pay a fee for each performer and it took some bargaining to get a discount.”
They also had to pay the Musical Professions Syndicate for the soundtrack: “They didn’t even listen to the soundtrack, they just asked some questions and then charged us. We were able to persuade them to let us pay LE1,000 instead of LE5,000.”
After the syndicate phase, however, the censorship phase starts. A censor is sent to attend a private performance or a dress rehearsal and take notes; he has the right to request changes, which requires another dry run. But in Ismail’s case because there was very little time they sent him a video of the performance. “He was actually very cooperative and he liked what we were doing. He even told us we should get in touch with him when we needed to organise any future performance, so he could advice us on the quickest and easiest way to facilitate procedures.”
To dance or not to dance
The Head of the General Directorate for the Censorship of Artistic Works and Advisor to the Minister of Culture Khalid Abdel-Galil says it’s the independent artists who are inflexible: “For example, there is a certain period of time when a license applicant should wait for the censors’ decision but most of the artists come on the day of their performance and they want the permission immediately. They need to understand the regulations and to work within them.”
According to Prime Ministerial Decree 162/1993, this means that every time a contemporary dance performance or an art house screening is held, the organiser must submit not only several copies of work itself but also documents proving the applicant’s rights over the work and a receipt of payment for the licensing fee, which the law does not determine. The Directorate is obliged to send a registered letter detailing the changes it requires within 10 days, and rule on the work within a month either from the first or the second submission depending on circumstances.
The most significant fact, however, is that such laws and regulations have existed for decades but had never been applied. Faced with the artists’ complaints that they were able to work freely before 2013, Abdel-Galil says that if the rules are temporarily withheld that doesn’t mean they’ve been annulled.
“Sometimes we do not insist on the details. For example, I have never prohibited a performance because of its content. But censorship does not work alone. There are protocols which are signed with the artistic syndicates stating that we should not give permission to non-members unless they have a valid permit from the syndicates themselves. I can see that this point is complicated – the way these permits are made available and the fees required for them is far from straightforward – but that is not my responsibility. We do our best to facilitate the artists’ work even when they come to us at the last minute.”
Abdel-Gelil feels artists would be able to find solutions within the legal framework if they were willing to cooperate. But filmmaker Omar Abdel-Aziz, the head of the umbrella Artistic Professions Syndicates Federation, says there are many problems between the syndicates and non-member artists, especially from the independent scene. “People complain,” he says, “but at the end of the day every syndicate has its own regulations and our role in the federation is not obligatory.” His plan is to organise a three-syndicate conference to discuss this and other issues. “In the Cinema Syndicate, we instituted a new section for costume designers, so perhaps the Theatrical Syndicate can do the same for contemporary dancers.”
Until the time of going to press, all attempts to speak to the Head of the Theatrical Professions Syndicate Ashraf Zaki – who at one point did promise to answer my question about non-member artists over the phone – have failed. Board member Ehab Fahmy refused to speak on behalf of the syndicate, and no one at the syndicate headquarters in 1 26 July Street was forthcoming.
For his part theatre director Nasser Abdel-Moneim, former president of the Egyptian National Theatre Festival and current board member of the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre believes that the regulations governing the artistic syndicates were drafted in a different historical context and should be reviewed to keep pace with developments on the artistic scene: “For example now we have many contemporary dancers who simply did not exist when the syndicate’s sections were established. Under the Egyptian constitution, everyone is guaranteed freedom of expression. So, in addition to artists who are graduates of recognised institutions and obtain syndicate membership automatically there should be more flexibility towards practitioners of art who have taken a different course.”
But it does seem to be yet another case of ineffectual laws arbitrarily abused. In July 1992 the Supreme Constitutional Court declared parts of Law 35/1976 regulating the fees paid by non-member artists unconstitutional, following a court case initiated by filmmaker Samir Seif, a member of the Cinema but not the Theatrical Professions syndicate, who had been sued by the then head of the latter actor Youssef Shaaban for directing a play without the syndicate’s permission. It took until 2003 for the law to be amended, and even then it did not change substantially: fees were now in return for the syndicate reviewing the artists’ contracts but they still had to be paid; and the penalties for not paying them – one to three months in prison and/or LE2,000-LE20,000 fee – were kept intact.
Notwithstanding everything else, Abdel-Moneim feels the main stakeholders – the artists themselves – have a role to play: “The independent arts scene is flourishing in terms of quality and quantity, but the artists are still divided and have no representatives to reflect their problems and needs. This situation makes it difficult to make any kind of progress. No one in the syndicates or in any other governmental body will take individual complaints seriously. We should understand that there is always resistance to new art forms. Change needs patience, and insistence. Who will make the change, though, if not the independent artists themselves?”
In 2014 a number of contemporary dance professionals including Ismail did organise a week of workshops to discuss issues and challenges, and the result was a manifesto, Basic Rights for Egyptian Dance Artists (aka BREDA). Its main focus was logistical and financial, but Ismail feels it is time to revive the initiative.
“I think the structure of censorship and the syndicates, the process of becoming a syndicate member and the fees required, as well as the legal framework for all this, should be the main topics. We need to launch a campaign to raise the issue. We want to be in and to have our rights as members, not fee-paying permit seekers.”
But this would require time and devotion and a unified front on the part of independent artists, Ismail concedes despite his apparent enthusiasm. Hegazy, for her part, is still trying to work around the tax issue in the hope of rescheduling a Cairo performance of Ya Sem before it goes to Amman, where it will represent Egypt in an upcoming festival.