Controversy at the Cairo International Film Festival

Egyptian film critic Ahmed Shawky has resigned from his post as artistic director of the Cairo International Film Festival. In an open letter he explains the reasons and the background of his decision.

FIPRESCI wishes to express sorrow and solidarity with colleagues, filmmakers and audience who have been damaged by cyberbullying. The unconscionable reactions of anger relentlessly released on social media have tangible consequences.

We are horrified to learn that film critic Ahmed Shawky has had to leave his home with his family and move to an undisclosed address as advised by security forces because he was threatened by a group of people who published his home address online. The social media campaign against him has become disproportionately violent.

Shawky has received thousands of messages threatening him and his family, allegedly from the supporters of a football club, because of a negative review he wrote about a popular television series. These threats were combined with a series of messages about Shawky’s online posts from several years ago in which he made offensive comments and used foul language. They were shared on social media accounts defaming Shawky, right after his appointment as the Artistic Director of Cairo International Film Festival on June 2. Ahmed Shawky, subsequently, had to resign.

We hope the social media hysteria calms down, and the conflict can be peacefully resolved through legitimate channels in ethical objectivism. (FIPRESCI)

Ahmed Shawky’s Letter

Dear All,

My name is Ahmed Shawky, a husband, a father, an ex-pharmacist, a newly appointed artistic director of The Cairo International Film Festival and also a person who has been subject to a smear campaign accusing me of violence, sexism and homophobia!

I have presented earlier my resignation and the festival accepted it. I did not want to imperil their image. I also wanted to have the opportunity to speak out to clarify things and repeal the baseless accusations I have been subject to.

It’s worth noting that last week, security advised me to leave my own house and refuge in a secret place, as football fanatics published my home address online and threatened of attacking me and my family. I received thousands of messages that include a lot of violence, threats and insults but equally received a large amount of love and support from people who really know who I am.

Whilst I admit that I have been sometimes unfortunate in my communication and some of my statements have been regrettably taken out of context, I shall share herein my version of the story, in all honesty and transparency.

I used violent words, but am I violent?

To put things into perspective, I believe it’s important to share with you a bit of my background, I was indeed born and raised in Egypt at a time when talking openly about politics was forbidden.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I decided abruptly to shift my career so I quit my pharmacy degree to pursue my passion: Cinema, at a time when my country was completely shaken by January 25th, 2011 revolution.

Everything changed within days, people who have always been silent for decades became all of sudden very vocal, arguing and fighting relentlessly. Almost every political or social debate got escalated quickly and turned into a verbal or physical fight. Violent language became the new norm in our daily life, even within family members. It was a complete disorderly period as anyone in Egypt would recall.

I got indeed deeply engaged, frequently changing my ideas and beliefs as everyone did, writing thousands of posts on social media, most of the time driven by frustration and feeling hopeless about the whole degradation in the country.

In 2013, the country was indeed completely ruined. Extremists were armed and freely wandering in the streets. They blocked my neighbourhood, threatened my family and physically attacked my loved ones. My wife once got attacked for simply not wearing a veil which would mean for them that she’s either “a Christian or an infidel”! We had to live with the threat of bomb attacks on weekly basis. One of their leaders clearly declared that: bombing will stop only when you allow us to rule the country!

(Please check the link and the video

In such a precarious environment, it’s extremely challenging to keep one’s sanity! It becomes quite easy to lose control of your feelings, thoughts and get dragged into this chaos and accordingly you become tempted to respond to this violence and extremism that was ravaging our beloved country.

Whilst I admit that I perhaps wrote occasionally inappropriate posts back in 2013 and 2014, I can assure you that I have never meant to hurt anyone’s feelings. On the contrary, those posts were directed towards a specific group of bigot and extremists. My intention was to stop the hatred, violence and extremism of this group and I do apologise if any of these posts caused pain or hurt to anyone.

I did issue an apology to El-Ahly club fans for a silly vocabulary I have used in a post that has ignited the crisis, and I’m hereby extending again my apology for all the inappropriate words and statements I have expressed to the dozens of young men who might have felt offended or endangered, those statements do not represent who I really am.

Am I a homophobic? Or a Sexist?

Here we come to the second part of the unfair and baseless accusations. I say unfair out loud because whilst I admit having inattentively written some inappropriate posts, I never meant to offend anyone. I hereby reiterate that under NO circumstances, I do tolerate homophobic or sexist behaviour.

Those who translated my posts know quite well that using swear words in Arabic dialect has absolutely nothing to do with the true meaning of the words themselves. All Arabs know this quite well and especially Egyptians, whereby swear words are being used regularly in our daily communication. Friends curse each other very often, and in any verbal fight with family or friends, it’s accustomed to exchange sometimes few bad words innocently.

Whilst I utterly repudiate this kind of language which I find inappropriate, one must admit that this is well enshrined into our society and daily life.

Additionally, it’s worth reminding that actions speak louder than words! And based upon the track record of my actions, I can proudly say that I’m one of the Arab professionals who fought at every occasion, each activity I organized, at every festival I worked in and each personal guest I invited to support diversity, inclusion, women empowerment and sexual freedoms.

I wrote hundreds of articles and social media posts defending LGBTQ Egyptian community, I organized public screenings of films that were not approved by censorship, I even initiated a campaign in 2011 calling to stop censorship. And during the last 5 editions of Cairo International Film festival, in which I took part in the programming, I tried my best to help the festival push boundaries, screening more and more films that were once considered sensitive and taboo in our country.

In the attached file, you will find some examples of what I really did toward the causes of diversity and personal freedom, through both actions and words, something I’m very proud of and will never change whether I’m with the festival or not. I will never stop promoting and fostering those valuable causes.

During my whole career, I was surrounded by amazing empowered women. Funnily enough, when they asked us last year to join the 5050×2020 pledge to ensure that the programming team is equal, I did not have to make any change to the team since it was already composed of 70% women! Hence we were two steps ahead from the pledge.

Now that I have left the festival, I do invite every single woman who came across or worked with me to speak out loud and tell everyone if I have ever showed her the slightest degree of sexism. At the contrary, so far more than 30 awesome empowered women (including big names in the industry) showered social media with supporting comments about their professional and human experience with me.

At the end

Whilst I did make in the past some inappropriate comments that were misused, misplaced and taken completely out of context, I never meant to hurt anyone in any possible way, and I reiterate that actions speak louder than words and accordingly I would urge everyone to judge me on the track record of my actions.

And my actions prove that I’m neither a homophobic nor a sexist. I refute completely those baseless accusations and will endeavour to keep fighting to foster and support diversity, inclusion, women empowerment and sexual freedoms.

Thank you for your time,
Ahmed Shawky