Adel Imam's jail sentence is an indictment of Egypt's Islamists

The promise of a brave new world in Egypt did not last long, as the case of Adel Imam, one of the Arab world's most recognisable artists, shows.

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He's the Arab world's most recognisable artist, a comedic genius. He is also a UN goodwill ambassador alongside Zinedine Zidane and Angelina Jolie. And now he may be going to jail.

Adel Imam, Egypt's most famous film star, was last week sentenced to three months in jail with hard labour and fined 1,000 Egyptian pounds (Dh610) for "defaming Islam" in some of the roles he has played during a 40-year career.

The case against Imam was filed before the revolution by Asran Mansour, a lawyer with ties to Islamist groups, and languished in the courts for months. His alleged crimes, absurdly, are past satirical roles that poked fun at fundamentalists. That the sentence, which Imam will appeal, was passed after the Muslim Brotherhood's recent parliamentary gains is no coincidence.

It reflects, however, a worrying trend. Amid the euphoria that swept the country almost a year ago, demand for books previously banned has skyrocketed. Films and documentaries about life under the oppressive regime, we were told, were to be removed from censors' lists.

But that promise of a brave new world did not last long, as Imam's case shows. Like Tahrir's revolution, the cultural awakening is facing its own obstacles.

The sentence against Imam and similar charges against others smell of a witch hunt, comparable to America's McCarthyism of the late 1940s to 1950s that ruined lives based on charges of communism. By passing such outrageous sentences, Egypt's courts are sending the wrong signal: old scores can still be settled in post-revolutionary Egypt, and prominent figures are fair game.

And they don't get much bigger than Adel Imam. Imam's career has spanned the rule of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat, Hosni Mubarak and now the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. His films, mostly comedies, have always had a strong dose of political satire.

His targets, however, were indiscriminate: the government, extremists of all religions and Egyptian society as a whole have all been on the receiving end.

The film Al Irhabi (The Terrorist) tackled the country's Islamic fundamentalists; the play Al Zaeem (The Leader), corrupt leadership. In Al Irhab wil Kabbab (Terrorism and Kebab), he poked fun at terrorist groups and their often absurd demands.

In 2006, he starred in the screen adaptation of author Alaa Al Aswaany's Yacoubian Building, set in 1990 at the time of the first Gulf war, which scathingly satirises the breakdown of Egyptian society since the 1952 revolution.

Two years later, his comedy Hassan and Morqos, in which he played a Coptic Christian opposite another stalwart of Egyptian cinema, Omar Sharif, presaged the sectarian tensions that we see today.

But his finest hour came in the 1979 comedic play Shahed Ma Shafsh Haga (The Witness Who Saw Nothing), in which he played Serhan Abdel Baseer, a hapless children's television actor trying to make ends meet, who ends up as the main witness in the murder trial that he is clueless about. The play verges on the slapstick and it's infinitely quotable lines have made their way into Arabic popular culture.

But read between the lines and there are references to an oppressive government, official corruption, prostitution and other social ills.

More than three decades before the Arab Spring, his character spoke of the downtrodden Egyptian, a victim of social inequality and political injustice. If Serhan lived in 2011, he would have been in Tahrir Square.

A lot of Imam's work has landed him in trouble. But he had been allowed artistic freedoms denied to others, which brought accusations that he was a Mubarak supporter.

Now by convicting Imam on such flimsy charges, Egypt's Islamists have shown that, for them, the new order is an opportunity for payback. Their assuring words about an inclusive, non-sectarian state are starting to sound hollow indeed.

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