Egyptian Comedian's Case Raises Free Speech Concerns

An Egyptian court has upheld the conviction against famous comedian Adel Imam for offending Islam in some of his most popular films. Despite protests by Islamists, he received only a suspended sentence and paid a fine of about $170. NPR's Soraya Nelson reports the court's ruling bolsters worries that an Islamist-ruled Egypt will stifle freedom of speech.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of the Arab world's most popular comedic actors is facing jail time in Egypt after a judge ruled he insulted Islam in some of his past film roles. The case worries those already concerned about the growing influence of Islamists in Egypt. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has that story from Cairo.

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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: In the 1992 comedy, "Terrorism and Kebab," Adel Imam plays a father trying to get bureaucrats in Egypt's largest government building to sign a paper so he can transfer his kids to a new school. But Imam can't find anyone at their post, including one bureaucrat with a traditional Islamic beard who constantly prays to avoid work. The two men scuffle and Imam inadvertently ends up with a rifle. The police wrongly conclude Imam's character is a terrorist who has taken the people in the building hostage.

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(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

NELSON: In this scene, he coaches the pious bureaucrat on what to say to frighten a little boy into running away so he won't get hurt. The bumbling bureaucrat is so convincing that Imam promises to get him a job on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TERRORISM AND KEBAB")

ADEL IMAM: (as character) (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: The comedy symbolizes Egyptian frustration with daily life under former president Hosni Mubarak. But many Islamists saw the movie as offensive. The popular film was one of several used to convict the 71-year-old actor of insulting Islam. His son is director Rami Imam. He says his father paid a $17 fine, but is appealing the three-month jail sentence the judge imposed on him. His appeal was bolstered Thursday when another judge dismissed a similar case against others involved with the offending movies. Reached by phone, the younger Imam says he feels the court cases are payback for all of the years his father spent fighting against religious extremism in Egypt.

RAMI IMAM: Why now? And why judge him upon movies and work that he's done, like, 30 years ago?

NELSON: Independent filmmaker Tamer el Said is less convinced. He believes the legal attacks are a way to distract Egyptians from their fight for democracy. He also blames the besieged actor.

TAMER EL SAID: Because Adel Imam is a symbol of a mainstream industry that was in complicity with the old regime on the people.

NELSON: Said accuses that industry of ignoring decades of political oppression. But the filmmaker adds he and others will nevertheless back the actor's appeal to preserve Egypt's newfound freedom of expression. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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