Play criticizes regime, banned by government

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) In a rare decision, the government has banned a popular play critical of the regime, reigniting a furor over censorship and freedom in increasingly conservative Egypt.

''Greetings My Masters,'' a political satire, had played to packed audiences for 35 days and was critically acclaimed for tackling the sensitive issues of democracy and freedom in Egypt, one of the freest Arab countries despite its authoritarian rule.

It was the first play banned in over a decade on grounds of insulting the regime.

Under President Hosni Mubarak's 14-year rule, artists, writers and journalists have enjoyed greater freedom than under previous regimes. But official censorship remains, and in recent years a growing number of books and films have been banned for allegedly insulting Islam or offending public morals.

The play was forced to close after Tuesday's performance because the national censorship board accused it of ''flagrant violation of public morals ... damaging the honor of the state and insulting senior officials with no reason.''

''Freedom and democracy have limits and when you exceed these limits you threaten the security of the country. They exceeded those limits,'' said Ahmed Abul Fetouh, a government censor.

The play tells the story of a poor Egyptian who is so fed up with mismanagement and inefficiency in Egypt that he decides to run against Mubarak in presidential elections.

While the play speaks well of the president, it criticizes other officials mentioning them by name and complains about chronic problems in Egypt like inflation and unemployment.

''The censorship board approved the script, and there were no deviations from the script,'' the play's author, Mahmoud el-Toukhy, said.

''While I was writing it, I was expecting every line to be stopped,'' el-Toukhy said. ''After 35 days I started believing there was freedom, and just when my belief became entrenched, they banned the play and took my belief away.''

Shortly before the play opened Tuesday night, riot police carrying the ban order surrounded the downtown theater and ordered it shut. But they later relented and agreed to let it run one last night since the theater was already full.

In ''Greetings My Masters,'' officials try to discredit the poor Egyptian running for president and finally drive him crazy. But it ends on an upbeat note when the 62 actors and actresses sing: ''The constitution belongs to us.''

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