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Amr Waked on why Egyptians should wear black for the referendum vote

Under fire following a recent trip to Washington, the Egyptian actor speaks to Middle East Eye about opposing Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's government
Egyptian actor Amr Waked participates in anti-government protests in Tahrir Square in February 2011 (AFP)

Egyptian actor Amr Waked made a name for himself starring in Hollywood films like Syriana and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, in addition to many Egyptian movies and shows.

But more recently, the 46-year-old, who lives in self-imposed exile in Europe, has garnered headlines for his outspoken statements against the Egyptian government led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, turning him intoan outlier among Egyptian celebrities who have largely backed the head of state - and the focus of major blowback. 

Amr Waked, second left, and Khaled Abol Naga, second right, appear on a panel on human rights in Washington in March (MEE/Ali Harb)
Amr Waked, second left, and Khaled Abol Naga, second right, appear on a panel on human rights in Washington in March (MEE/Ali Harb)

After a trip to Washington last month, where he and fellow actor Khaled Abol Naga publicly criticised Egyptian authorities during a US Congressional hearing, the two faced a fierce response back home.

The Egyptian actors' union expelled the two from the organisation and a pro-government magazine ran a photoshopped image of the actors, topless and embracing one another, along with singer Sherine Abdel Wahab, who has faced charges of "insulting Egypt" for her own public comments. The headline read "Agents and more".

In a wide-ranging interview this month, Waked said he believes his comments in the US served "a fatal blow" to the Egyptian government because they showed that the Egyptian opposition includes a wide spectrum of citizens, not only members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

He also discussed why he hasn't voted in recent elections in the country, why he will be voting in the upcoming referendum on changes to the constitution that would allow Sisi to stay in power until 2030 and why he'll be wearing black when he does.

Middle East Eye: What did you make of the government’s reaction to your meetings in Washington?

Amr Waked: It was the fiercest and most violent campaign ever launched against us. The attack was unprecedented and it reached very dreadful degrees of disinformation and sordidness in an attempt to disgrace us.

We do not fully agree with anyone who reduces the greatness of Egypt to one person or to a particular political system, or to choices and decisions to which we thoroughly object. This is a constitutional right guaranteed to all Egyptian citizens, and I assure you that this organised and methodical defamation campaign will not make me back down on any of my positions, ideas, and principles, nor will I rethink my belief that those who rule us pose a great danger and that they are the real enemies of Egypt.

When did the media defamation campaign start and why?

Since the end of 2013, there have been repeated violations and attacks on television and on various pro-regime media outlets, including attacks aimed at stripping me of my Egyptian nationality and accusing me of being a traitor, in addition to other countless accusations. All this is because I believed in the need for change in my country.

Have you taken legal action against those campaigns?

I have filed many lawsuits against those who slandered and defamed me. I went to court myself. But the judiciary absolved all these people, unfortunately, as if they hadn’t committed any crime against an Egyptian citizen.

Why did your activities in the US Congress ignite this wave of accusations against you?

'The regime is trying to convince the international community that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists are its only opponents'

The regime is trying to convince the international community that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists are its only opponents, but this flawed claim lost ground with our visit. For the first time, we managed to communicate a clear message to the international community that the regime has many opponents that do not belong to the Islamic mainstream.

Letting everyone believe, whether at home or abroad, that the circle of political and popular opponents to the regime has become wider and inclusive of all the different political spectrums and persuasions, affects the regime and gives it a fatal blow.

Now it is forced to explain to the world the reason why all those popular and societal communities are opponents and justify why artists, scientists, and writers who care only about the future of Egypt and their sons are imprisoned.

Who is responsible for the government’s so-called ‘war on terrorism’?

Terrorism started to flourish and spread throughout Egypt during the current regime because of its repressive security practices and policies which everyone knows about. Terrorism was a projected scenario in the event, which took place on 3 July 2013. Sisi himself believed that threat to be real when he sought a mandate to confront it.

However, over the past six years, the terrorism strategy has grown wider to target not only the police and army, but also Copts and pro-regime civilians and recently tourists. The geographic area of terrorism has also widened. It was previously confined to Sinai, but today it has reached the heart of the capital, which has witnessed many terrorist incidents. Terrorism has also reached some governorates in the south and the north, triggering questions about who is behind the attacks and who benefits.

If there was no terrorism, would there be a need for the existence of military leadership? I believe that the presence of terrorism is very important for sustaining the military state, which thrives on citizens’ fears, triggered by the situation of neighbouring countries and subject to constant threat. In this way, they are easily manipulated and won’t claim their rights and freedoms.

A bus carrying tourists to the Giza pyramids was hit by a roadside bomb in December, killing four and wounding 10 others (AFP)
A bus carrying tourists to the Giza pyramids was hit by a roadside bomb in December, killing four and wounding 10 others (AFP)

We are really suffering from terrorism, because it has become a real fact nowadays. However, one must consider the reasons behind it and deal with them appropriately so that the crisis won’t escalate, making terrorism unbearable and uncontrolled.

Extremist ideology exists, and prisons have spawned some extremists who seize opportunities to recruit ignorant and innocent people through manipulating their minds and feelings in revenge for the terrible injustice they have been subject to. Extremists entice the oppressed who have now become numerous in Egypt.

Religion can be one of the reasons to trigger terrorism, but oppression, injustice, and hatred are the main reasons behind terrorism. The New Zealand terrorist was not a Muslim. Therefore, terrorism has no religion, but rather a phenomenon related to hatred, incitement, morality, and vengeance.

How were your meetings with members of the US Congress and the state department? Did they understand what you are defending?

'US officials are perfectly aware of what is going on in Egypt and the details of the events - even more than Egyptians'

I spoke about my personal perspective of the Egyptian situation and its future prospects. I explained the violations that I have been subjected to as an independent Egyptian actor. I did not ask for their sympathy or make any request.

US officials are perfectly aware of what is going on in Egypt and the details of the events - even more than Egyptians... They are directly working with the Egyptian government and its military institutions clearly as allies and are also exchanging expertise in different fields.

My message was clear: change is inevitably occurring in Egypt. We see its features and precursors. You must respect the wishes and aspirations of the Egyptian people, as well as their choices and stick with them. You should not stand against the will and movements of Egyptians seeking change because your interests with the Egyptian people are much safer than with those who oppress and crush them.

How do you respond to those who accuse you of asking for help from forces outside the country?

I am against asking for help from external forces. This behaviour is typical of officials in power. How can an artist ask help from external parties? Is claiming one's rights considered to be seeking empowerment from foreign parties? All I have is the freedom of expression, and I represent no authority, group, or institution. 

I expressed my opinion inside Egypt. I was then informed that I was sentenced to eight years military sentence simply because I expressed my opinion. When I expressed my opinion outside, they claimed that I was seeking power abroad.

The reality is that he who goes to get weapons from outside to harass his people is the person who is seeking power abroad - the one who pays the West millions of dollars for those weapons that go unused while his people are suffering from the worst economic crisis is the one who seeks power from foreign parties. This happens while debts inside and outside reach terrible and frightening numbers. Foolish promises are made to build a new capital, new prisons, and other projects that we do not see as necessary and will not be of use, while the railway network is still damaged and citizens are being killed.

Why have you taken this step now, despite the deterioration of the human rights situation that started since the events of 3 July 2013? Do you think you were late in taking such a move?

I do not know if it is late or not. And if late, as some see it, it is “better late than never”.

Will you do what you did in Washington in other Western capitals?

Indeed, this may be repeated. We don’t have any platforms now except for platforms abroad. If all the political prisoners were released and we got a commitment from the authorities that opponents would not be prosecuted for fabricated cases, the first capital we will talk in is Cairo. However, unfortunately, so far it is impossible.

In the coming period, I will focus more on expressing my opinion about the constitutional violations. We aim to raise the awareness of Egyptians inside and outside about the dangers of such amendments. They should reject them if they want to have justice, freedoms and rights and if they aspire for a brighter future for all segments of society without exclusion or discrimination.

What are your future plans in this regard?

I am currently preparing for the campaign "Haak Alaya Ya Masr" (Please forgive me Egypt). I’m trying to unite people and invite them to participate in the upcoming referendum by wearing black and when they vote to show their popular rejection and document it in front of all the cameras and media outlets.

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This, in my opinion, will put the regime in a critical situation and will make it difficult to falsify results. These pictures of blackness will be clear evidence of their rejection, a way to assure the rights of our children and our country to freedom, justice, and decent living conditions.

This referendum is a real opportunity to make a change, especially in light of the popular rejection of the constitutional amendments, and because the ongoing boycott since 3 July 2013 has not yet achieved tangible results except further failure. Therefore, we are in urgent of a different path and to think in new ways.

I have boycotted all the recent elections, but what is the result? Nothing. Our boycott of the parliamentary elections resulted in the formation of a parliament that does not represent us. The current parliament is the reason for the terrible constitutional amendments. We have boycotted the previous presidential elections. The result is that we are still ruled by the same president. 

Therefore, we have to adopt a different way this time. Perhaps this will bear fruit and pave the way for the desired change.

What about people who may refuse to wear black for fear of security abuse or arrest?

It is sad that we have reached this situation. This calls us to join forces to stop this rule of intimidation. If we reach the stage where some are afraid to wear black, we have no right to dream of change or anything. We will be compelled to ask the authority’s permission even in our dreams.

'I personally will wear black clothes and go to vote on the referendum day and I will say "No" a thousand times'

Has repression in Egypt reached this terrible level of fear? This would be very frustrating, but I do not think that things have reached this level.

I personally will wear black clothes and go to vote on the referendum day and I will say "no" a thousand times. If everyone agrees to this plan, how can all Egyptian people be arrested, and where will they be imprisoned? I cannot imagine that this would happen.

People will not participate in any protests on referendum day. Rather, they will answer the regime’s call, wearing the clothes they chose. The regime has sent us this invitation, and we accept it and walk in the peaceful path that the regime has set for us in order to express our views in a civilised, simple and secure manner. Before all this fear, we should know that there is a ‘Do not agree’ box on the referendum form. They have to omit this choice if they want to intimidate us.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.