Protecting His Nation From Puppeteers and Belly Dancers

Samir Sabry has filed more than 2,700 criminal complaints to influence Egyptian politics and enforce his brand of public morality.

CAIRO — In a cluttered corner of his labyrinthine law office, amid dog-eared files and half-empty coffee cups, Samir Sabry stood over a computer screen, his face grave as a stone, watching a clip of a potty-mouthed puppet.

On screen was Abla Fahita, a popular satirical character based on a wisecracking widow with a salty sense of humor. She was poking fun at the forced intimacy of Egyptians in such a crowded society. “Like two butt cheeks in a pair of underpants,” she quipped.

Mr. Sabry’s lip curled.

“They call this funny?” he asked. “It’s extremely immoral, and a lot of Egyptians hate it.”

He issued an order, and the following morning, his office dispatched a criminal complaint to a public prosecutor, accusing the puppet’s producers of “promoting debauchery.” If convicted, they face up to five years in prison.

Mr. Sabry, a portly 67-year-old lawyer, is one of the most prolific litigators in a country where the law allows one citizen to press charges against another for vague crimes like immorality and “insulting” the nation. While it falls to a government prosecutor to decide whether to pursue such cases, and many are dismissed as frivolous, the successes have stifled free speech, hobbled the arts and even swayed national politics.

A tireless vigilante who wields the law like a cudgel to enforce his prickly, often paranoid, brand of Egyptian nationalism, Mr. Sabry claims to have filed more than 2,700 such public interest lawsuits in the past 40 years, often firing off several in a day. His legal darts have targeted actors, clerics, politicians and even belly dancers, and may play a decisive role in the next presidential election.

Many cases fizzle out. This was his third suit against the puppet show, which he previously sued for a skit on the novel “Fifty Shades of Grey.” A judge threw out that case.

When Mr. Sabry succeeds, however, the consequences can be far-reaching.

A clerical televangelist known as Sheikh Mizo, who irked Mr. Sabry with his teachings, was jailed for five years in February. Ahmed Naji, a writer, was thrown in jail for nine months in 2016 based on a complaint that Mr. Sabry supported. (The chief litigant, another lawyer, claimed that racy material in Mr. Naji’s novel had strained his heart.)

In November, Mr. Sabry helped get Sherine, a smoldering pop diva, banned from performing in Egypt after she had made a biting joke about the quality of the famously dirty water in the Nile.

“Egyptian art is in its worst state ever at the moment,” he thundered. “They are relying on nudity, swear words, drugs and thuggery, and are showing our Egyptian women as whores. We have to stop them.”

Now the fate of one of Egypt’s few opposition politicians hangs by a thread spun by Mr. Sabry. Khaled Ali, a leftist lawyer, is likely the only real challenger to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in elections scheduled for March, even if few believe he can win.

But his chances are further hampered by his conviction last year on charges filed by Mr. Sabry for having made an obscene gesture outside a Cairo courthouse. If Mr. Ali’s appeal, scheduled for March 7, fails, he will automatically be disqualified from the presidential race.

Critics say legal crusaders like Mr. Sabry are not only choking the precious little free speech that remains in Egypt, but are hurting one of Egyptians’ proudest attributes — their ability to laugh at themselves.

“We are the funny Arabs, the ones who take nothing seriously,” said Hafsa Halawa, a legal expert. “And now even that is disappearing.”

Mr. Sabry, for his part, relishes his role as moral enforcer. “People fear me,” he said.

He works from an eccentrically appointed office in Cairo’s old city crowded with dozens of tiny figurines, including Roman emperors, Abraham Lincoln, London beefeaters, and the Pope, as well as part of his collection of 3,400 toy cars, carefully arranged on a conference table.

He stays up late into the night, monitoring a giant television over his desk or prowling the internet on his iPad, looking for anyone he deems to have offended Egypt or Mr. Sisi. For research he turns to his archive: eight rooms filled with towering piles of newspapers and magazines, dating to the 1970s, that provide additional ammunition against his targets.

“Just in case I need to find out what they said previously,” he explained on a tour of the dust-filled chambers. “To expose their flip-flops.”

Such an intense pace of work leaves limited time with his wife, Mr. Sabry admitted, but he was never much of a romantic. “All this love and hand holding — enough,” he said. “She knows this is my passion. In any case I buy her gifts — diamond rings, a necklace and a BMW. It makes for a happy marriage.”

His ardor for Mr. Sisi, though, is virtually boundless. Both men were born in nearby Gamaliyah, among the winding alleys of the old city, where Mr. Sisi’s father was a trader. When Mr. Sisi, then a general, came to power in 2013, Mr. Sabry said, he offered Mr. Sisi advice over drinks at the Heliopolis Club, and later interviewed him for a newspaper.

The resulting article, “General Sisi: Between Symbol and Legend,” is one of dozens framed in the hallway detailing Mr. Sabry’s exploits attacking enemies of Mr. Sisi.

Mr. Sabry went on to file hundreds of cases against the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Mr. Sisi’s military had ousted from power, and sought, unsuccessfully, to strip 113 Egyptians of their citizenship, including the opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei and Wael Ghonim, a Google worker who played a prominent role in the Arab Spring protests of 2011.

“Any system has its trolls,” said Mr. Ghonim, now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. “That’s his way of being relevant.”

Mr. Sabry makes few bones of his disapproval for certain people. In 2015, he blocked a belly dancer named Sama al-Masry from running for Parliament on the basis of her profession. “It’s entirely unsuitable,” he said. He tried to shutter the Cairo operation of the British newspaper The Guardian, accusing it of spreading “fake news.”

His own record of truth-telling, though, is debatable. In newspapers and interviews Mr. Sabry has claimed to have graduated from Boston University with a Ph.D. in commercial law in 2000. But officials at Boston University, contacted by The New York Times, said they had no record of Mr. Sabry and that they do not offer a Ph.D. in commercial law.

Pressed about his claim, Mr. Sabry pointed to a framed certificate issued by Constantinian University — an educational establishment with an official address at a house in Lincoln, R.I., that, on its website, calls itself “an honorary institution.”

Mr. Sabry works in a crowded field. In November another lawyer made waves when he moved against “Sheikh Jackson,” Egypt’s nomination for best foreign picture at this year’s Oscars, which tells the story of a young cleric who dances like Michael Jackson. The film’s lead actor is being sued for contempt of religion.

Last month another lawyer brought a prosecution that landed a minor pop star named Shyma in jail for two years for a video in which she appeared to fellate a banana.

This week, an Alexandria lawyer, Tariq Mahmood, filed a complaint against The New York Times, accusing it of undermining Egyptian security over an article about a secret effort by Egyptian intelligence to sway public opinion in favor of President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. On Tuesday, Egypt’s prosecutor general ordered a criminal investigation into the article.

Mr. Sabry is generally dismissive of rival litigants, whom he considers inferior patriots, but they give as good as they get. “Where is he getting his money from?” asks Ahmed Mahran, a lawyer who helped foment a crackdown on gay people last fall when he lodged a complaint against several people who had waved rainbow flags at a concert. “Could it be the security agencies?”

Another lawyer, Nabeeh el-Wahsh, disparaged Mr. Sabry as a blowhard who uses the cases as “a chance to get famous.”

Mr. Sabry denied the accusations, and insisted that he personally finances his lawsuits with no help from the government.

He claims that two-thirds of his prosecutions have resulted in convictions, an estimate that seems high. But even when his lawsuits collapse, they can have a chilling impact on free speech. Khaled Dawoud, a journalist targeted by Mr. Sabry, said that although he escaped unscathed, the threat of revived criminal charges is ever-present.

“It’s like a sword hanging over my head,” he said.

Such measures are finding favor in Mr. Sisi’s government. Legislation currently before Parliament would make it easier for the authorities to strip dissidents of their citizenship, which one former member of Parliament has likened to Nazi-era laws.

Mr. Sabry sees it as a positive development. “Good news,” he said. “It will keep us busy.”

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