This past week, a number of high-profile charges and arrests took place against long-time human rights activists, as well as a widely admired pop singer in Egypt. In a stunning and puzzling move, beloved Egyptian pop singer Sherine Abdel Wahab was charged, with “insulting the Egyptian state,” and is set to stand trial at the court of misdemeanors next month after she made a joke about one of her songs titled, “Have you drank from the Nile?” During a recent concert in the United Arab Emirates, a fan requested she sing the song, and she responded by saying jokingly, “No, you’d get Schistosomiasis! Drink Evian, it’s better.” The Musicians Syndicate also reacted to the incident, by banning Abdel Wahab from performing in Egypt indefinitely.
Schistosomiasis, which is more widely known as bilharzia in Egypt, is a parasitic disease that is frequently found in the country’s freshwater bodies. It is particularly rife in the Nile River. Many people who swim in the river contract the fatal disease, which kills up to 200,000 people worldwide per year. (Legendary singer Abdel Halim Hafez died in 1977 from complications of bilharzia.)
The lawyer who brought the complaint against Abdel Wahab said her joke would hurt Egypt, which is trying to rebuild its devastated tourism industry. For most Egyptians, however, the lawsuit has come as a shock, even though this is far from the first time the Egyptian judicial system and other state agencies have gone after entertainers and musicians, on overblown charges.
Only a few months ago, the Egyptian Music Syndicate banned Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila from performing in the country. In 2013, the satirist Bassem Youssef was charged with insulting then-President Mohamed Morsi, as well as Islam, and disturbing public peace, after a segment on his popular television show, El Bernameg, made fun of a visit Morsi paid to Pakistan. In 2014, the music of Egyptian singer, Hamza Namira was banned from playing on Egyptian radio because the lyrics allegedly criticized government officials. Just last summer, the country’s most popular rock band Cairokee had its latest album censored, with the Music Syndicate cutting out songs the band claims were about “everyday life, our problems as young people, social media and what we see on TV,” according to Mada Masr.
Only a few days after the complaint was filed against Abdel Wahab, human rights lawyers, Mahienour El Masry and Moatasem Medhat, were arrested and detained on charges of protesting against the government’s ceding sovereignty of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir without a permit to Saudi Arabia. While activists like this are suffering the most under Egypt’s repressive governments, the Abdel Wahab case also shows that truly no one is safe.