Few breathed easier than Egypt’s belly dancers when the Muslim Brotherhood was ousted last summer. But its successors have hardly smiled on the profession either. This week, Egypt’s first X Factor-style belly-dancing show – al-Raqisa, or The Dancer – was scrapped after just one episode, following a backlash from the country’s religious authorities.
Egypt’s Dar el-Ifta, a wing of the justice ministry that issues non-binding religious edicts, said al-Raqisa would destroy the moral structure of the country. Shortly after, producers of the show – hosted by Egypt’s pre-eminent belly-dancing star, Dina – voluntarily announced its suspension.
“Though the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer in power, Egyptians remain pretty conservative,” explained Diana Esposito, aka Luna of Cairo, an Egypt-based US dancer who opted out of the show for contractual reasons.
Egypt’s government has waged a year-long crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and seeks to stamp out religious extremism. But religion and state are by no means separate: the government is conservative, and officials have no wish to upset religious sensibilities in a country where Islam is deeply entwined with public life.
The juxtaposition between Dar el-Ifta’s reaction to al-Raqisa and its other recent outburst highlights the government’s complex position. Last week, Dar el-Ifta denounced Isis, the extremist group that lays claim to parts of the Middle East in the name of Islam. But within days, it had also condemned online contact between members of the opposite sex. Days later, it turned on belly dancing.
Isis is not Islam, said Dar el-Ifta, but al-Raqisa is not the answer either.
Members of the dancing community nevertheless say that things are still slightly better than they were under the Brotherhood. Randa Kamel, a well-known Egyptian dancer, says that before the Brotherhood’s fall, she was dancing just twice a week, as the economic crisis and increased conservatism that accompanied the Brotherhood’s tenure prompted venues to curb their dancing expenses. Now Kamel is back to dancing every night, even if audiences still have not reached their pre-revolution peak.
“Under the Brotherhood, everyone was afraid,” said Kamel. “The Brotherhood didn’t just like oriental dance – they didn’t like life. But now, that’s all changed. A lot more people want me to dance.”
The change is cultural and economic, says Lorna Gow, aka Belly Lorna, the only British belly dancer working in Cairo. The rise of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egypt’s new president, prompted more consumer confidence. And though belly dancing is sneered at by many, including Dar el-Ifta, audiences do not feel as judged as they did under the Brotherhood.
“Since Sisi got in, a lot more venues are spending money on their venues, looking into entertainment, and pushing everything that is Egyptian,” said Gow. “I’ve seen a huge increase in Egyptians coming to see dance shows, hiring belly dancers for their weddings again in the last few months.”
There is a third reason for the mini-resurgence: Safinaz, a controversial Armenian dancer who emerged from obscurity last year to become one of the biggest stars of the Egyptian dance scene. Safinaz has become so popular that she threatens the rule of al-Raqisa’s host, Dina, Egypt’s best-known homegrown dancer. This has sparked a backlash from Dina’s supporters, who say Safinaz has vulgarised the profession.
“Dina is Egyptian,” said Kamel, a Dina loyalist. “She understands this country’s 7,000-year-old history. She knows how men look at her, she knows how to make them respect her. But if you look at pictures of Safinaz, you will feel shame.”
According to Esposito, it was Dina’s desire to wrest back her crown from Safinaz that led her to set up the show, which then triggered accusations of immorality. “The idea was to shoot down Safinaz’s popularity in Egypt,” Esposito said. “She figured [the show] would distract from Safinaz. At the same time, she didn’t want to create new stars. So the contract said that you couldn’t perform in anything until six months after the last episode. And they’re allowed to renew that contract at any point [in that six months] without telling you.”
[Stock photo of an Arab belly dancer. (Shutterstock.com)]