"I remember right after the revolution putting on an album of love songs from one of our biggest pop stars," said the film director Mohamed Diab, a friend of Namira's and another artist trying to steer the country in a different direction. "I played one track and I couldn't listen to it anymore."
The director was sitting in the garden restaurant of an upscale Cairo hotel. Less than a mile away, across a ferry-dotted Nile, the situation was getting ugly. Clashes between protesters and the reigning Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, over the group's refusal to turn over power, had intensified. A hail of gunfire, rocks and Molotov cocktails would claim more than a dozen lives on that day. The country's hard-right Islamist party, the Salafists, had just scored surprising wins in parliamentary elections, and the air crackled with tension.
As if underscoring the point, a man spotted Diab and whispered to a waiter that revolutionaries should not be welcomed here.
Diab has learned firsthand the perils of nudging a country along too quickly. A longtime screenwriter, he made his directorial debut in 2010 with a feature about sexual harassment in Egypt titled "Cairo 678." The film was embraced by liberal critics, as it was at festivals around the world. But it was deemed too provocative by conservative voices in his home country. Three lawsuits (including one from Tamer Hosny) were filed before it even came out. Egypt's United Nations delegation boycotted a General Assembly screening scheduled to support it.
The best way an artist might communicate more liberal thoughts is to do what Salama did with his latest movie — slip in social messages covertly. The filmmaker recently released "Asmaa," a feature about an HIV-positive woman who is told she can receive a life-saving medical treatment only if she reveals how she contracted the virus; she decides to hold her ground in the face of religious conservatives.
Though it never speaks of national politics, the film's defiant heroine has become a metaphor for a generation that feels like its point-of-view has been suppressed.
"[I] wanted to make a movie about the fear of speaking out and overcoming that fear. I think people after the revolution are reacting to that," Salama said. At a downtown Cairo screening on a recent weekday, the film was given a standing ovation.
Experts say that, from a cinematic standpoint, a certain kind of suppression can actually be beneficial. "If there's less freedom of speech, the dramas actually have to be more subtle," said Cornell's Fahmy. "That's a paradox, but it can be good. I mean look at 'A Separation,'" he added, referencing the nuanced 2012 Oscar winner from Iran.
Documentary filmmakers face a tougher climb; a nonfiction film doesn't allow for nearly as much cloaking. Karim El Hakim, an Egyptian American living in Cairo who co-directed the vérité documentary"1/2 Revolution," about the seminal 18 days in Tahrir last year, found himself swept up in a government raid and held overnight in a desert prison cell during the revolution.
"The camera was a cover at the beginning. But then we were targeted for it," Hakim said over dinner one night, gunshots from a clash between protesters and the army echoing in the distance. Hakim's movie has been shown at festivals around the world, screening in competition at January's Sundance Film Festival in Utah. But because El Hakim is not a member of Egypt's cinema syndicate, he says, it has not been shown in his homeland.
Others have found ways to work within the system. Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon who tended to the wounded during the revolution, vaulted to fame when his homemade YouTube videos pointing out the foibles of those in power caught on in the months after the revolution. Soon he became a star, landing his own television show, "El Bernameg" (The Program) on an independent satellite station. Working with a staff of just four, Youssef has pulled off what is exceedingly rare in any Middle Eastern country — a satire program along the lines of "The Daily Show" that stands in sharp contrast to the party-line programs that populate state-run news stations. (In June, he will spend a few days at the Comedy Central series' New York set.) Bits on his show frequently lampoon pronouncements of SCAF or the Muslim Brotherhood by contrasting them with footage and facts from modern-day Egypt.
But even he has run up against obstacles. "When you hit on the SCAF stuff, people accuse you of being anti-military; when you hit on the Salafists they call you anti-Islam," he said. "He pauses, 'The same thing happens with [Jon] Stewartand [Stephen] Colbertin America — the right wing says they're anti-Christian. It's just that in Egypt the religious forces are a lot more powerful." The government hasn't pulled his station's license — yet.
But some of the post-Tahrir entertainers' biggest impediments come from within.