On Monday, actors Amr Waked and Khaled Abol Naga spoke out against Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi at a Capitol Hill event in Washington intended to draw attention to proposed changes to the Egyptian constitution that could let Sissi serve until 2034.
On Tuesday, they found out that they were expelled from the Egyptian actors’ union, which accused them of treason.
“I found out last night. A friend of mine sent me a scanned copy of the decision. I wasn’t really surprised, to be honest,” Waked, perhaps best known stateside for his roles in 2005′s “Syriana” and 2014′s “Lucy,” told The Washington Post.
Waked said that in May 2018 he was tried in absentia by a military court in Egypt and sentenced to eight years in prison for allegedly insulting the state and publishing fake news.
Waked wasn’t the only one who found the union move predictable.
“I’m not surprised this happened. In fact, I think I’d be surprised if it didn’t happen,” said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow in the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution.
Both Waked and Naga, who are based abroad, have appeared in a variety of Egyptian and foreign film and television productions. The union decision denies them the right to work as actors in Egypt. Waked said that, given what’s facing him in his homeland, “if I go back to Egypt, I won’t even have time to act. I don’t know what they’re trying to prove.” He added that the union is not supposed to immediately cancel memberships but rather inform members first that there is an investigation against them.
Naga, of the television series “Vikings,” said that he wasn’t surprised that they were expelled, but was surprised at how quickly the group moved. “If the syndicate wants to expel any artist, they have to inform them … there’s a lot of regulations,” he told The Post.
“The wording is ridiculous. It’s judging us of great treason. It goes on as if it’s a court ruling. As if they’re taking not only our syndicate membership, but also our nationalities. The wording is so strange.”
“They’re really not doing their job at all. They’re not abiding by any rules and regulations. It’s become a farce, really,” Waked said.
But that depends on what the unions see as their job. “It’s not a new thing for unions and syndicates in Egypt to see themselves as an extension of the state rather than protection from the state,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Some say the union’s move reflects the increasingly oppressive climate engendered by the Sissi government. “It’s somewhat remarkable that the Sissi regime still finds ways to be even more repressive than it was before,” Hamid said.
“The reaction by the authorities is exactly what one would imagine it to be at this current juncture,” said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation focused on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia.
Hamid said that one of the lessons for leaders in the wake of the tumultuous Arab Spring, the wave of anti-government revolts and protests in the Middle East that began in late 2010, was that extreme repression can work, at least in the short term. “Sissi isn’t necessarily thinking about the long term. He’s thinking about the here and now. . . . It has worked at least for the last few years,” Hamid said.
“At core, I think the Egyptian government isn’t sure what led to the events of 2011 and, therefore, isn’t sure exactly how to prevent a repeat of 2011. Their instinct is to clamp down more on criticism in the hopes of nipping opposition movements in the bud,” Alterman said, referring to the Arab Spring protests in Egypt that brought down longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
“There are people of varying degrees of prominence with varying degrees of bravery who are critical of the direction that the Egyptian government is taking,” Alterman said, adding, “The government has quite intentionally created a chill. "
Hanna echoed that assessment, saying: “There is no organized opposition sentiment left in the country. All of that has been destroyed. The kind of organizational accomplishments and developments that happened before 2011 and post have been almost completely destroyed. There’s not much left. To the extent there is public discourse, there is a pro-regime public discourse.”
Naga, for his part, stressed that there is dissent, pointing to his own Twitter feed. “It’s the Internet generation,” he said, adding via text, “What used to work in the short term is no longer working in the same ‘short term’ ... Time is running out for the iron fist tactics in Egypt.'”
But Waked, who is based in Barcelona, said that, if anything, the decision is a reminder that he’s one of the lucky ones.
“I am outside. I’m not really apprehended or anything like that,” he said. “Imagine everyone in Egypt today. Imagine everyone else; imagine everyone who doesn’t have my profile . . . which is the extreme majority. How are they going about their lives?”