The censorship of films started as early as 1904, when it was added to the law of censorship of publications that had been passed in 1881. Soon, the question of film censorship was to be discussed in the newspapers. On 8 May 1911, La Réforme announced that the governorate of Cairo had decided to intervene in order to stop projecting films that were excessively realistic. The danger of such films was that they might encourage others to do the same. Police stations received orders to monitor what was being shown in cinematographs and to immediately notify the governorate should a film go against public morals or order.
By 1916 pressure was mounting in the newspapers. The Al Ahram (3 March 1916) was pointing out the evils of the cinema, using what was written in the English papers as an example. The Times, for instance, had warned of the dangers of presenting theft and crime in an attractive way. The Al Ahram called on the armed forces to censor films in an effort to protect the mind and morals of the nation, just as they had helped in the matter of temperance, limiting alcoholic drinks, and others.
In 1918, The Deadly Flowers (el Azhâr el moumîtah), starring Mohamed Karim was banned by the censorship for religious reasons. The Quran had appeared turned upside down and so the censors could not let it through.
As displeasure grew and agitation was voiced in the papers, censorship became more specific and organized. A ministerial decree regarding imported films was passed in 1921, stating that a tax of 4% would be imposed on each reel of film, to cover the expenses of censorship. This would be conducted by means of a committee that would view the film as soon as it entered the country. If the committee found that it contained nothing morally offensive or upsetting to state security, the film would be approved and its importer would be allowed to show it in the cinema halls. If, however, the film was banned, half the tax, along with the customs duties, would be returned to the owner. (El Waqa’i el Misreyah, August 1921; Ma’arad el Cinema 20 January 1929).
In Cairo the call for censorship had come from the governorate. In Alexandria, when a member of the public presented a request in 1923 to the Municipality that the governor should create committees the role of which would be to preach against the evils of the cinema, in order to counter the moral chaos resulting from showing offensive photos and scenes, the Municipality ruled that this did not fall within the scope of its responsibilities (Al Ahram 31 May 1923).
When Wedad Orfi thought in 1926 of making a film about Islam, and Youssef Wahbi agreed to play the role of the Prophet Mohamed, public opinion along with the voice of the Mufti and the Azhar sheikhs rose vociferously against the project. As a consequence of the battle fought in the papers, Wedad Orfi and Youssef Wahbi decided not to go ahead with the film.
The screening of the “Egyptian” films Laila, A Kiss in the Desert (Qoublah fî-l-sahrâ’) and Souad the Gypsy (Sou‘âd el ghagariyyah) caused a furore in the press. Many denied that A Kiss in the Desert was Egyptian at all, since of all the names appearing in the credits only Ibrahim Zoulficar was Egyptian. Others cried it was a shame to portray Egyptians in such a base way, and demanded that the image of Egypt had to be protected. Thus it was a few months later, in September 1928, at the demand of Mohamed el Quiss Pasha, Director General of General Security, Ministerial Decree number 42 for the year 1928 stated that any films containing scenes from Egypt had to be reviewed and approved by the Ministry of the Interior before they were exported. Enforcing this censorship would save the reputation of Egypt abroad. The censorship tax would be 150 milliemes for each bobbin of the film.
In the same year, 1928, a committee for censorship was created, composed of the Undersecretary of General Security, the Director of the Arts Department, a delegate from the European Administration, and 4 inspectors from the Ministry of the Interior. When needed, the committee could resort to specialists in the area it was censoring. Eventually a member representing the Ministry of Education was added. In the beginning that member was Zaki Toleimat. Later Tewfik el Hakim, also from the Ministry of Education, joined the committee.
The first Egyptian film to be censored in its entirety was The Tragedy of Life (Ma’asât el hayât) 1929, directed by Wedad Orfi. The Egyptian censors found that it was too full of dance and frivolity and an offense to public morals, and so it was never shown.
The other film was Laila, Daughter of the Desert (Layla bint el sahrâ’). It was produced by Bahiga Hafez in 1937 but was banned because of some scenes depicting Persians in an unfavourable light. This was during the period when the Egyptian princess Fawzia was married to the Shah of Iran. Bahiga Hafez was compensated by the Egyptian government for her financial losses. In 1944 the film was edited and shown in cinemas as Laila the Bedouin (Layla el badawiyyah).
In 1936 the censorship administration was re-structured to include 10 departments, of which one was the Publications Department, empowered to enforce publication laws. In 1936, also, Ahmed Farid el Rifai, Director of the Department of Journalism, Publications and Culture called for the Egyptianization of Egyptian organizations. He said that young Egyptian female graduates should be employed to censor films, and also suggested that the Ministry of Education should participate, in order to more usefully employ the cinema in the process of reform. Another addition in 1938 was the newly formed Ministry of Social Affairs, to which was assigned the censorship of novels and films.
Conditions in the area influenced the type of censorship that was being practiced. Censorship was no longer concerned only with morals and education. With the outbreak of World War II and the declaration of martial law, censorship was enforced on all Egyptian lands. In 1942 a military law was passed forbidding the filming of any scenes related to the navy or army or armed forces, whether Egyptian, British or Allies without permission from the authorities. The 1948 war increased the vigilance of the country with further martial laws enforcing censorship on publications, films and all forms of media, and the Censorship Department returned once more to the Ministry of the Interior.
Some general principles were laid in early cinema censorship, forbidding the violation of public morals and revealed religions, crime, and the spreading of dangerous teachings such as communism (El Sabah, 23 December 1928). By the fifties they had reached 30, including religious, political, social and sexual issues, crime, and violence (Jacques Pascal, The Cinematic Guide to the Middle East and Africa, 1954). They remained in effect until 1952, when Ibrahim Abdou, Director of the Censorship Department, reduced them to 6 items: property, extremism, Egypt’s reputation, religion, public morals, and slandering a public figure.
Sample of Censorship Report
Film: The Lost Treasure (el Kanz el mafqoud) 1938
Director: Ibrahim Lama
Script: Badie Khairi
Music and Lyrics:Youssef Salah
Starring: Badr Lama, Nazla Kamel, Gamalat Hassan, Safia Helmi, Mahmoud el Arabi, Sami Nna’assan
Date of screening: 20 November, Ezbekieh Gardens Cinema.
Summary of the Film
Sami, a reckless young man, seduces the daughter of the overseer of his plantation with honeyed words. When she gives herself to him, he abandons her. Her brother returns from Sudan and by chance finds a letter from his sister to Sami. He decides to kill Sami when he learns the truth. But, in the darkness, he kills his sister instead and is jailed. A few years later he escapes and hides at his uncle’s, until he meets an old man whom the villagers think is mad. He is good to him and feeds him. On his deathbed the old man tells him of the secret of the treasure and gives him a map of the place. The old man dies and Amin finds the treasure after many difficulties. He disguises himself as a maharaja, and marries Sami’s sister, who has by chance sought asylum with his aunt, seeking to escape the bad reputation and behaviour of her brother. The maharaja perseveres in using his wealth to ruin Sami, in order to avenge his sister’s honour. Sami finally comes to him to beg for pity and mercy. The maharaja reveals all to him, but his son, Azzam (who is also the nephew of Sami), intercedes on the behalf of Sami, and marries his daughter.
Report submitted by the censor Zeinab Fawaz, 23 October 1938
- Cut from the second part the phrase “I have as many women as cravats”;
- And from the third part the sentence in the letter that the girl gave herself to him;
- And from the fourth part the scene in which the prisoner cuts his chains and escapes.
- And in the fifth part a small child sings of love and passion and makes gestures that can never be made by a child her age, so I think this scene should be cut;
- In the sixth part the scene in which the madman is followed by a crowd of dirty jeering children should be cut, as well as the scene in which the madman drinks from the clay pot.
The director of the film, Ibrahim Lama, presented a memorandum to the Director of Cinematic Censorship agreeing to cut what the censor had determined (except for an ordinary song that a child of twelve sings. “We see no reason why it should be cut, especially as the words are not offensive and its omission would greatly harm the film”). He attached the words of the song to the memorandum. However, his brother Badr Lama presented a memorandum dated 30 October 1938 consenting to the censor’s memorandum, and cutting all she had remarked on:
- “I have as many women as cravats” after the second part;
- The letter that refers to the girl’s deed (For your sake, I have sacrificed the purest and most valuable thing a virgin owns);
- Third scene: cut the child’s song (Oh dears, I’m in love);
- Shorten the scene of the madman and dirty children, and the scene of the madman drinking out of the clay pot (the sixth part).
From The Dawn of the Cinema (Fagr el Cinema)
by Mahmoud Khalil Rashed
Motion Pictures and Morals
We notice that, if used badly, motion pictures could wage war against morals and have an evil effect on virtue. How often have obscene photographs done away with the chastity of girls and how many scenes depicting wily criminals have overthrown the honour of boys.
Most governments give a great care to matters that affect the morals and behaviour of nations. In all civilized kingdoms there is a specialized organization for the inspection of stories before they are acted and cinema films before they are shown, in order to prevent any unpleasant consequences.
Censorship prevents all that may arouse the audience, such as war scenes in times of war, or patriotic stories that provoke downtrodden nations.
There is something censorship must pay attention to, which could affect the reputation of the kingdom and its status among other kingdoms. Foreigners have taken many photographs of Egypt and have shown them in their countries, to prove how civilized Egypt is. But in most cases the photographs only represented the most disgusting Egyptian scenes and the lowest Egyptian social classes. This has the worst possible effect on the reputation of our country, and the government, whose duty is to create a pure and honourable reputation, must pay attention to this issue.
The government must also forbid the taking of photographs of monuments, except in return for a certain sum and on condition that they must be shown in Egypt before they are shown in other countries, for foreigners have often taken photographs of Egyptian monuments and shown them in their countries and their people have enjoyed watching them, while we haven’t. They made a profit large enough to tempt them to come back for more. The government must wake up and pay attention to this matter.
- Ali, Mahmoud. El Cinema wal Raqaba fi Misr 1896-1952.
- Farid, Samir. Tarikh el Raqaba ‘ala el Cinema fi Misr. Cairo: The Egyptian Office for Publications Distribution, 2002.
- El Hadari, Ahmed. Tarikh el Cinema fi Misr:1896-1930. Cairo: Publications of the Cinema Club, 1989.
- El Dounyyah wa kulu shay’, 23 November 1938, p. 11; El Dustour, 20 November 1938.