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Atfal al-Shawarea: A fatherly fear of sarcasm and the street
 
 
Courtesy: Atfal al-Shawarea Facebook page
 

On Tuesday the prosecution extended the detention of four performers of the six-member Atfal al-Shawarea (Street Children) troupe by 15 days, pending investigation. A fifth member was ordered to be released and to pay a fine of LE10,000. The order was not executed until Thursday.

Police had arrested Ezzedin Khaled, the fifth member, from his house the previous Saturday and interrogated him on charges of inciting protests and publishing online videos insulting state institutions. Police also raided the house of troupe member Mohamed Adel Aboul Fadl that Saturday, but he wasn’t there. They persevered and he was eventually arrested on Monday, along with three other members: Mohamed Abdel Meguid Gabr, Mohamed Dessouky Sayed Hassan and Mohamed Yahia.

The troupe’s members, aged between 19 and 21 years old, were targeted after they posted a short video on Facebook mocking people they call “worshipers of military shoes” and criticizing President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his regime.

The troupe became active at the beginning of this year. Its six members choose a random place in the street to present a show a few minutes long, shooting themselves using a mobile phone, selfie style, and publishing the results on Facebook. In fewer than five months, they have garnered  a lot of attention through their simple videos, which usually include singing and acting. The longest video doesn’t exceed six minutes.

In the troupe’s first video, “Sprouts of Faith,” they repeat famous excerpts from the omnipresent Holy Quran radio station, which represents a common vocabulary for most Egyptians. Other videos vary in topic, mocking how pop songs and films tackle issues or satirizing social issues, as in the video called “For Those Who Don’t Fast,” in which they act out scenes borrowed from conversations between Egyptians during Ramadan.

The troupe recently began to address political issues, ranging from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Egyptian’s expected suffering from the water crisis that may result, to the recent concession of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, an incident that prompted the largest protests Egypt has seen since Sisi took power.

A close friend of Atfal al-Shawarea, who preferred to remain anonymous, explains that the troupe tries to comment on what’s going on in the country without focusing on political content: “There were videos on culture, just as there were videos on politics.”

The problem of the street

The arrests, starting with Khaled and involving a three-day chase after the others in the streets until they were found, came just after the video denouncing Sisi and the “worshipers of military shoes.” This may indicate that the main problem with these videos is not that they have a political outlook, but that they’re shot in the streets.

In his Ten Theses on Politics, French philosopher Jacques Rancière considers the police’s main task to be controlling public space: “The police says that there is nothing to see on a road, that there is nothing to do but move along. It asserts that the space of circulating is nothing other than the space of circulation.”

The friend close to the band doesn’t consider any of Atfal al-Shawarea’s acts as political. “The troupe members’ lives consist of being out on the street all the time.” Asked why they called themselves “Street Children,” he says: “Sometimes they sleep in the street — they’re literally street children.”

Filmmaker Salma al-Tarzi thinks being present in public space is one of the essences of freedom. She speaks of the problems she faces when working: “You have to get permits to shoot anywhere. Any attempt by people to organize themselves or to do any activity in a public space, regardless of how void some of these activities may be, represents a nuisance for the state.”

Tarzi recalls the Ministry of Culture’s attempt to contain graffiti artists after the 2011 revolution. “Graffiti, as an art practice, is dependent on public space, the street,” she says, adding that that’s why the ministry attempted to organize activities to draw these artists into its own spaces. In return, the state allowed them to continue practicing. It was an attempt to control a group seen as let loose in public space, according to the filmmaker.

Tarzi says the members of Atfal al-Shawarea met for the first time in a theater workshop and decided to take their experience to the street. She describes them as “a group of young people who started life without the resources to shoot in a specialized setting. So the street became their ready-made platform.”

She says their decision to take to the streets consciously or unconsciously represents a break into public space.

Atfal al-Shawarea and graffiti artists present their work in the streets without obtaining permission, which some see as a violation of public space. But behind this question of mere legality is a wider state policy regarding what consitutes a violation of public space.

In August 2014, security forces decided to put an end to the El Fann Midan initiative, an arts festival that started with the January 2011 revolution, held on the first Saturday of every month in the streets of cities across the country.

Poet Zein al-Abedine Fouad, one of the co-founders of El Fann Midan, told Raseef 22 that the festival had represented “an exceptional space of freedom that formed a genuine popular culture but annoyed the current regime. So [the government] blew it away, so it could retake the empty squares for itself and re-exert its control over public space all over again.”

Rancière sees politics as embedded in the attempt of “transforming this space of ‘moving-along’ into a space for the appearance of a subject: i.e., the people, the workers, the citizens: It consists in refiguring the space, of what there is to do there, what is to be seen or named therein.”

Tarzi thinks that, as a citizen, she should be able do what she wants in the street as long as it doesn’t cause material harm to anyone. But the state insists on treating its citizens as guests, perhaps even unwanted ones.

The problem of the father

Despite functioning in the street for a while, Atfal al-Shawarea came onto the security radar the moment they criticized the head of the state.

Although it is successful and popular among its fans online, the troupe has been criticized by supporters of the regime for its videos addressing sensitive political issues and criticizing the president. In comments on the troupe’s Facebook page, these supporters have called for the arrest of the troupe. Similar comments are found on a page that pretends to belong to the Egyptian police, where the troupe is described as having “humiliated the Egyptian people” (in relation to the “Worshipers of Military Shoes” video). Many of those who have expressed solidarity with the troupe, however, say the problem with the video is not that it describes people as worshiping the military’s shoes but that it tells Sisi to “have some pride and leave.”

After this video, which the troupe object to Egypt’s transfer of Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia, the police arrested the members within three days and referred them to prosecution, where they have been interrogated on charges of assaulting state institutions and calling for protests. The prosecution issued a 15-day detention order shortly before the troupe was summoned to face another list of charges including: promoting terrorist ideas, using social media networks to promote these ideas, and incitement to participate in protests and incitement to gather illegally.

The troupe’s lawyer Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, thinks the prosecution decided to manipulate the case to make the offense a crime instead of a misdemeanor. That way, the troupe members are subject to a 15-day pre-trial detention period as opposed to four days, and they face a full prosecution rather than a partial one. It also means they will be charged in accordance with legal clauses that could lead to more severe penalties. Othman thinks there is an intention and a determination to detain and terrorize them without looking into the evidence against them. He calls it a violation.

This violation is not just a reaction to the restriction on public space that Rancière speaks of, but must also be seen as a reaction to disobeying a fatherly order “to no longer talk about this matter.”

If the arrest of these young people is a victory for those performing the father role, it has also spawned an online campaign in which people post selfies taken using a mirror, with the line “Does the camera phone scare you?” and the hashtag: #الحرية_لأطفال_الشوارع (Freedom for Atfal al-Shawarea). The viral nature of this campaign over the past week is a testament to the ongoing struggle for public space. It started in the virtual space provided by the internet but it may end in the real space of the street, which the regime thinks it can totally control — just like it thinks Atfal al-Shawarea threatens its existence.

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Mohamed Hamama 
Shady Zalat