Breaking the Egyptian State’s Grip on Celebrities

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The main focus on the events in Egypt has been on the mass gathering of demonstrators in Tahrir Square in Cairo.  These demonstrators became the media heart of the protests against the Mubarak regime. Yet as in other areas I have looked at the role (or non-role) of celebrity activists is salient as a lens focused on the intersection of politics and culture.

One thematic issue that emerges from such an enquiry is the differing levels of activism between older and younger celebrities. A major older celebrity is Omar Sharif the Oscar winning star of Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago and other movies. What is striking in his comments is his desire for both change and stability. On the one hand, he says that President Hosni Mubarak should have resigned. ‘Given that the entire Egyptian people don’t want him and he’s been in power for 30 years, that’s enough’. And he added: “The president hasn’t improved the standard of living of Egyptians. There are some people that are very rich — maybe 1 percent — and the rest are all poor trying to find food.”

Yet he expresses concern over moving beyond the Mubarak era. As he told AP: “I personally don’t know what they [anti-Mubarak forces] will do afterwards. Who will they bring, who will take his place, who will be in charge of the country?” This fear was magnified if it turns out that the Muslim Brotherhood gains from the exit of Mubarak leaves. “They [the Muslim Brotherhood] were trapped and now are starting to come out. They have 20 percent of the population, and it’s frightening for me.”

This cautious on the one hand and on the other hand attitude can be contrasted to the enthusiastic anti-Mubarak views of young celebrity protestors, some of whom have gained prominence in other countries. A case in point is Khalid Abdullah described by the BBC who repeatedly interviewed him as a ‘British-Egyptian’ actor (the Kite Runner is his best known film, and he was honored at the 2010 Cairo film festival) who rather than looking down at ‘Liberation Square’ like Sharif is actually in the square. Besides Abdullah’s distinctive characteristics his role also raises the question of whether celebrity activists who have gained some measure of fame abroad can go home again – a theme that I will return to next week.

If the shifting agency of celebrity activism needs to be looked at further however so must the embedded context in which celebrities have had to operate in Egypt. What jumps out is the tight grip of the state. As I have pointed out in earlier blog posts a wide number of Egyptian celebrities dating back to Umm Kulthum in the 1960s have been mobilized for the interests of the state.

What is different about Egypt under Mubarak is the personal nature of this grip. Rather than just promoting celebrities because they adhere to the interests of the state, Mubarak’s family members have taken on the role of celebrity activists. The best – or worst – illustration of this phenomenon is the endorsement of Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of Egyptian president as a goodwill ambassador for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

The Egyptian first lady may be committed to good causes, as other individuals in this role are. Indeed, she has won a number of awards for he work. Yet, in witnessing the pent up demand for change I can’t escape the conclusion that having her as a goodwill ambassador is just one more indicator about how pervasive the hold of the Mubarak regime on Egypt has been.

As in other parts of the world, a healthier format would be to have prominent celebrities – with no state links – exclusively appointed to this role, especially from the younger generation of activists.

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