Many in Egypt were shocked when last month a court convicted Adel Imam, the country's ageing, rubber-faced comedy king, to a three-month jail sentence for "insulting Islam", marking the latest twist in a continuing drama.
Censorship through legal harassment has long been a feature of Egypt's culture wars, but the prominence of the victim, the severity of the punishment and the innocuousness of the crime combined in this case to set a worrisome precedent. Is this the shape of things to come?
Adel Imam has been one of the stars of Egyptian and Arab cinema for four decades. He made his name in the 1960s and has since appeared in close to 100 films. These have alternated between forgettable comedies and films that tackled - albeit not necessarily with particular subtlety - the social and political issues of the day, such as relations with Israel in the 2005 movie El Sifara Fi El Amara (The Embassy in the Building) and sectarian tensions in the 2008 film Hassan and Morcos. He portrayed an unspecified Arab dictator in his extremely popular 1998 play El Zaeem (The Strongman). One of his latest successes include the role of the likeable old rouée Zaki El Dessouki in the 2006 block-buster movie version of Alaa Al Aswani's novel The Yacoubian Building.
But Imam today may be heading for a fall. He is widely seen as a friend and proxy of his contemporary, Hosni Mubarak. (Imam dominated his field even longer than the ousted former president - the Arab world's movie stars tend to be as difficult to dislodge as its dictators). His feud with Islamists, meanwhile, dates back to several 1990s comedies skewering religious fundamentalists, which at the time earned him death threats and security cordons on opening nights.
The charges against Imam were brought by an unknown Islamist lawyer called Asran Mansour, who also accused several prominent directors and script-writers of "insulting the heavenly religions and making fun of holy things and men of religion in [their] artistic works." One case was dismissed. Another proceeded, and on April 24, Imam was handed a 1,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh624) fine and a three-month sentence. He is appealing, and the final verdict will be delivered on July 4.
The case names comedies such as El Irhabi (The Terrorist), a drama in which Imam plays a fundamentalist who firebombs video stores and attacks foreign tourists but eventually questions his beliefs when he is forced to spend time in hiding with a tolerant, middle-class Cairene family. It also mentions El Irhab wa el Kibab (Terrorism and Kebab), a classic comedy that features a put-upon father wrestling with the country's intractable bureaucracy, who accidentally takes hostages in a government building and can think of nothing better to ask for from the authorities than takeaway food.
Imam's portrayals of religious fundamentalists are broad and unflattering - featuring false beards, furrowed brows and stentorian deliveries. The overwhelming suggestion is that Salafists (the ultra-conservative Muslims who have recently won 25 per cent of seats in parliament) are all extremists, hypocrites and manipulators. Then again, while his portrayals may lack nuance and be unsympathetic, it's worth remembering that they were filmed at a time when armed Islamists groups were engaging in terrorism in Upper Egypt and that it's hard to find anything more ridiculous or extreme in them than what some Islamists have actually said and done.
Egyptian law allows anyone to bring charges against "whoever exploits religion in words or writing or any other methods to promote extremist ideologies, with a view of stirring up sedition, disparaging or contempt of any divine religion or its adherents, or prejudicing national unity and social peace." Islamists have taken this already spectacularly broad clause to mean that they have legal protection from ridicule, whereas it should be obvious that making fun of the way certain individuals practice their religion is not the same thing as insulting religion itself.
Imam's position is complicated by the fact that his relationship with the former regime and the Mubarak family was cosy and he often spoke out in defence of government policies. His movies never had any trouble with the censors, and many of those that skewered religious fundamentalism aligned themselves so neatly with government positions as to skirt the edge of propaganda and lead some of his colleagues to accuse him of being a government "spokesman".
Imam is also one of several members of the country's cultural elite to have been caught wrong-footed by the revolution. On January 2011, he condemned the demonstrations (he later tried to reverse himself, phoning in to a satellite channel to tell protesters - much too late - that he was on their side). Today, his name is the most famous on a revolutionary "black list" of artists who supported Mubarak. With Islamists parties legalised and controlling a majority of the country's legislature, and generally ascendant, he is particularly vulnerable. But Egypt's actor's syndicate and the cultural establishment - even many younger artists and Mubarak critics who disliked Imam and his politics - have rallied around the embattled actor, condemning the verdict and organising various shows of support. They view the attack on Imam as an opening salvo in a reinvigorated and worrisome onslaught on artistic freedom.
Egypt has an official authority that censors films and TV serials. But much censorship takes place through other, less official, means: court cases, media campaigns, fatwas issued by religious authorities and what is commonly known as "street censorship". During the 1990s, several prominent authors, most famously Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz, were also the targets of death threats and assassination attempts.
The Mubarak regime liked to present itself as a defender of freedom of speech, and it stood up to Islamists occasionally. But just as often it sacrificed artists to public opinion or practised censorship and repression of its own. Because freedom of expression and creativity wasn't truly respected or guaranteed, the regime could present itself as the only protector and bulwark against Islamist intimidation - and all too often, artists accepted its patronage, at a political price. The Imam case is about dealing with the legacy of the Mubarak regime - the co-opted and contradictory position that a repressive state generally put the arts in - and about the ongoing struggle over the limits of creative licence.
Of course many Egyptian artists worked independently, all along, accepting political risk, social marginalisation and difficult financial circumstances as part of their calling. After the uprising, they expected a new era of freedom, and have been busy, for the last 15 months, producing art, graffiti, music, films, public festivals and plays that might have been difficult to put on, or to find audiences for, before.
Today, the question is whether this explosion of artistic production will remain unchecked. Islamists in parliament are reportedly discussing a new censorship law and have been calling for stricter cuts to the kisses and embraces that are ubiquitous in Egypt's classic black-and-white films from the 1920s through the 1960s, still in heavy rotation on state television.
"There is a great difference between true creativity, which society seeks and which draws its values from the firm Islamic legacy, and these trivialities that they call 'art'," writes Amer Shamakh, on the subject of the Imam case, in the newspaper of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. He argues that the "degeneracy that invaded our homes, corrupted our youth and threatened the foundations of society" was one of the causes of last year's revolution.
The Islamist vision of the arts is rather dreary. There shouldn't be too much romance, too much grittiness (Shamakh also objects to depictions of Egyptian society as all "filthiness and obscenity", calling for more inspiring portrayals) or too many laughs.
But for decades, Egyptian leaders have been the butt of well-turned jokes. Last year's uprising seemed fuelled by ridicule almost as much as by indignation. Egypt, in other words, is a country where no one has ever been safe from laughter. Let's hope that tradition continues.
Ursula Lindsey, a regular contributor to The Review, lives in Cairo.