- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2008

CAIRO (AFP) — Egypt’s announcement of a cap on non-Egyptian actors has sparked outrage in a country that considers itself the Arab world’s Hollywood, where regional hopefuls come to make it big.

The head of the actors union, Ashraf Zaki, said last week that Arab artists from outside Egypt would be allowed to take part in only one Egyptian production a year, whether it be in film or the hugely popular soap operas.

The union said it would not grant work permits to “many Arabs coming to work in the artistic fields because they take jobs from Egyptian graduates of the higher institute for cinema and theater,” Mr. Zaki said.

“Many young women who are introduced to film and television have nothing to do with art,” he said.

Young Arab actors rush to Egypt hoping to follow in the footsteps of the giants of the golden era who came from neighboring countries and rose to be Egypt’s screen stars of the 1940s and ‘50s.

Last year, Syrian Tayem al-Hassan dazzled audiences with his portrayal of a young King Farouk in the popular soap opera of the same name.

Tunisian Hind Sabri, who mastered the Egyptian accent, ended up playing the leading lady in a number of high-budget films, including the widely acclaimed “Yacoubian Building.”

The decision to block Arab artists is “racist and extremist … it goes against the interest of the Egyptian cinema and television industries,” said Ibrahim Abu Zaki, secretary general of the Arab Producers Union.

Tunisian actress Dorra Zarrouk, who moved to Egypt two years ago and has worked with renowned director Youssef Chahine, says she was very surprised by the decision.

“I understand that one would want to organize the industry and protect the rights of Egyptians,” she says, “but this decision is not the solution. If it were to be applied, I don’t know what I’d do, I won’t stay in Egypt to just work on one film per year,” she says. “That would be unfair.”

She says she thinks it’s up to the director to pick his stars, not the task of a syndicate.

After a furor over his comments, Mr. Zaki took a softer stance, telling Agence France-Presse he would “never oppose artists of the caliber of Tayem al-Hassan … or Hind Sabri taking part in more than one production per year because these are real artists.”

Some have rushed to Mr. Zaki’s rescue, saying he was right to protect young Egyptian stars.

“Zaki’s decision is not targeted against Arabs, but it is to protect Egyptian artists from unemployment,” wrote Galal al-Sayyed, a columnist with the daily Al-Akhbar, referring to “an invasion” of Arab actors.

Tapping into the country’s conservatism, Mr. Sayyed deemed it necessary to defend “Egyptian talents who only rely on their art, not on nudity and prostitution.”

A meeting last Thursday headed by Culture Minister Faruq Hosni failed to resolve the issue after complaints from members of the industry.

The decision taken by the syndicate “is not a political one, because Egypt is the cultural, political and social capital of the Arab world and we won’t accept sacrificing that,” Mr. Hosni said after the meeting.

Egypt’s trade ministry also joined in the debate, saying limiting Arab actors’ appearances would have a negative impact on relations with Arab countries and, more important, investments from them.

“This decision runs counter to the Egyptian policy that aims at attracting Arabs to work and invest in Egypt,” said Samiha Fawzi, assistant minister of trade and industry.

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