Egyptian court jail singers over 'insults and debauchery'

Egyptian courts have jailed two singers for seemingly tame behaviour deemed threatening to society in a country growing increasingly repressive on all fronts.

The famous singer Sherine Abdel-Wahab was given six months over a joke which suggested the Nile River is polluted, which prosecutors used to accuse her of insulting the state.

A fan had asked her to sing one of her popular songs referring to drinking from the river, Egypt's lifeline, to which she playfully suggested that it is safer to drink bottled water.

The other, little-known Laila Amer, was sentenced to two years for inciting "debauchery and immorality" with a music video in which she plays a downtrodden but belly-dancing housewife, complaining to her husband about his bossy mother. The name of the song, Bos Omak, is a play on a popular Arabic profanity.

The charges, while not uncommon in conservative Egypt, come at a time when free speech in general is under assault by authorities and tolerance for different opinions seems to be reaching an all-time low ahead of next month's presidential election, in which President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is almost certain to win after other potential candidates were forced out of the race.

Timothy Kaldas of the US-based Tahrir Institute said: "Fundamentally this is a conservative regime that seeks in part to ground its legitimacy in its ability to defend the country's 'moral code'.

"It reflects a long-term effort to demonstrate it's no less committed to morality than the Islamists it has displaced."

Mr el-Sissi, who overthrew his divisive Islamist predecessor in 2013, will almost certainly win in March given that all serious competitors in the race have been disqualified or intimidated into dropping out.

He faces a single opponent, an obscure politician who supports him and registered at the last minute when it became clear no-one else could face Mr el-Sissi.

Muslim-majority Egypt has steadily grown more conservative over the past half century, although it maintains relatively vibrant arts and music scenes and is far more liberal than Gulf Arab countries.

Prosecutions for moral issues have grown, however, under Mr el-Sissi's leadership, which has ushered in the country's fiercest crackdown on dissent and freedoms in its modern history.

In September, authorities arrested dozens of people after several waved an LGBT rainbow flag at a Cairo concert by a popular Lebanese indie rock band whose lead singer is openly gay. The band, Mashrou' Leila, was later banned from performing in Egypt.

In December, female singer Shaimaa Ahmed faced similar charges to Amer over what was deemed racy content, being sentenced to two years in prison, reduced to one year on appeal.

Her video showed her dancing in her underwear and suggestively licking an apple and eating a banana before a classroom of young men.

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