Adel Imam, Egypt's favorite funnyman, dodges a bullet

Adel Imam, arguably Egypt and the Arab world's most famous comedic actor, had his conviction for 'insulting Islam' overturned today. But another was upheld earlier this week.

Aziz Shah/AP/File
In this November 2005 file photo, Egyptian film actor and comedian Adel Imam walks with Egyptian actress Laila Elwi during the Second Dubai International Film Festival red carpet reception in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

The Egyptian Adel Imam is the Arab world's most beloved comic actor. Yet now in his 70s, at the end of a glittering career, he's faced trial for "insulting Islam" in a number of his film roles.

He's now 1 for 2 in court cases against him. An appeals court this week upheld a three-month jail sentence given to Mr. Imam in February 2011, shortly after Hosni Mubarak was pushed out of office, while another court found him and a number of other movie figures not guilty on a separate set of similar charges yesterday. He hasn't appeared at any of the hearings against him, and it's hard to imagine him going to jail while senior regime figures, among them Hosni Mubarak, remain free.

Imam, with his elastic face that can simultaneously seem mournful and ridiculous, has been a bumbling Arab everyman in more than 50 films down the years. Though many of them have been forgettable slapstick romps, a few are considered modern Egyptian classics. Like an Egyptian Bill Murray, he's played more serious roles as he's gotten older, most famously "The Yacoubian Building" in 2006, where he appears as the central character, an aging womanizer in a movie about corruption and the disappointments of Egypt since the 1952 revolution.

The cases against him can in some ways be seen as Islamist versions of nuisance suits. Amnesty International points out that a long-standing article in Egypt's penal code allows charges to be brought against "whoever exploits religion in words or writing or any other methods to promote extremist ideologies, with a view of stirring up sedition, disparaging or contempt of any divine religion or its adherents, or prejudicing national unity and social peace.”

That language is wide enough to drive a truck through, and the so-called blasphemy law has been unevenly enforced over the years. Last year, a lawsuit brought against the politically active tycoon Naguib Sawiris, after he posted a picture of Minnie Mouse wearing a Muslim veil on Twitter, was tossed out of court.

In the final decade of Mubarak's rule, there were at least a dozen blasphemy actions, from court cases against religious figures to the banning of books to the withdrawal of publishing licenses from magazines that produced fiction depicting Islam.

So while Egypt's Islamists – generally not fans of free speech when it comes to matters of faith and social mores – are on the rise politically, it's worth keeping in mind that such actions were frequent under the presumably secular Mubarak regime. Still, the fact remains that Islamist political power is going to be increasingly expressed in the years ahead, and that's something for the country's actors and writers to keep an eye on. Egypt's salafists, whose version of Islam is severe and limiting when it comes to free speech and the role of women, have become major political players with about 25 percent of the seats in parliament.

Both cases against Imam were brought by a salafist lawyer from Alexandria and though conviction carries a jail sentence, they're considered misdemeanor crimes under Egyptian law. An Amnesty International researcher following the case said that the lawyer told her he brought two actions simply because he felt that would bring him a better chance of success.

Imam's original sentence, the one that was upheld, was tied to his performances in movies like "Terrorism and Kebab," a 1992 satire about the country's Kafkaesque bureaucracy, in which Imam's character accidentally takes a major government administrative building hostage after losing his temper with incompetent government officials and then demands take-out food. In other films, he depicted an Islamist militant and corrupt regional autocrat.

The "dangerous" Adel Imam orders takeout after taking over a government building in "Terrorism and Kebab."

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