Artists versus Islamists in Egypt's culture war

"In a dictatorship," the Sudanese-born intellectual Abdel-Wahab al-Effendi once  remarked, "the role of the minister of culture isn't to protect culture, but to stifle culture and to protect the regime".

For 24 years, this was the role that Farouk Hosni performed in Egypt as the "civilised" face of the Mubarak regime, promoting operas and art exhibitions and establishing "cultural palaces" around the country. 

Regarded as a protégé of the president's wife, he kept his job even when scandals befell his ministry – such as the fire at an overcrowded theatre in 2005 that killed more than 40 people and the theft of a $50m Van Gogh painting from a museum where none of the alarms were working.

In 2009, Hosni sought to become head of the world's top cultural body, UNESCO – a move that was eagerly supported by the Mubarak regime for the prestige it would bring. His eventualrejection followed a campaign against him over remarks about 
burning any Israeli books found in Egyptian libraries but others argued that his overall record as culture minister made him unsuitable for the UNESCO post. 

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal, for example, said he was "as suitable to lead UNESCO as a Cairene cat would be to guard a stew". It continued:

"Human-rights activists are not the only ones reeling at the thought of one of Egypt's pre-eminent censors being named standard-bearer in Unesco's self-described goal to 'build peace in the minds of men'. 

"One can only imagine the peace in the minds of thousands of Egyptian writers, bloggers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, lecturers, broadcasters and other culture-purveyors who have been tortured, harassed, imprisoned or banned in Egypt since Mr Hosni took office in 1987. 

"Or the 100-plus heavy-metal fans arrested there over the last decade for their supposed Satanism. Or any of the remaining 80 million Egyptians regularly denied access to any new ideas their government deems harmful."

Prominent Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas said of Hosni:

"We've never really understood whether Hosni is right or left-wing. Personally, I think he's a hypocrite. When he came to power, he had long hair; he seemed more open-minded than the others. But now, he's flirting with the conservative religious types.

"I don't care about him saying he said he wanted to burn Israeli books. What's worrying is that a so-called man of culture thinks such things about books in general – and is then considered as the world's potential ambassador for culture!

"He had the time and the means to change things in his own country, but did nothing ..."

"Doing nothing" is definitely not a charge that can be levelled against Alaa Abdel-Aziz, the new (Islamist) culture minister. Since taking office last month he has already dismissed the heads of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, the Fine Arts Sector, the Cairo Opera House, and the National Library and Archives.

Amid fears that Abdel-Aziz is on a mission to "Islamise" Egyptian culture, many of the artistic community – al-muthaqafeen. as they are known –- have mobilised to oppose him. The Guardian reports:

"As the curtain rose for the evening performance at Cairo Opera House, the cast did not assemble for the opening prelude of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida as they had on previous nights. 

"Instead, more than 300 actors, dancers and theatre staff filled the stage, wearing full costume and clutching protest signs. Addressing the audience, conductor Nayer Nagi announced: 'In a stand against a detailed plan to destroy culture and fine arts in Egypt we abstain from performing tonight's opera'."

Since then, protests have continued outside the culture ministry building in Zamalek – some of them in the form or music or dance.

At a meeting on Sunday, members of the Supreme Council for Culture (SCC) announced that they do not recognise Abdel-Aziz's appointment and regard his decisions as "invalid". There were also calls to make the SCC an independent body. Ahram Onlineexplains:

"By law, the culture minister is also the president of the SCC, which ties the SCC to Egypt's presidential office. Abdel-Aziz was appointed culture minister a month ago by Brotherhood-fielded President Mohamed Morsi.

"As one of the most important parts of Egypt's culture ministry, the SCC is responsible for setting ministerial policies and organising ministry activities.

"The SCC is also responsible for granting state cultural prizes, which are traditionally announced in June. Many initiatives have been launched to reform the SCC and liberate it from the culture ministry, but none have been implemented.

"SCC members fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will now attempt to tip the committee's membership so Islamists dominate and they can then control Egypt's cultural policies."

Rather bizarrely, the SCC also seems to regard the military as a better custodian of Egypt's cultural heritage than the Brotherhood. According the Ahram Online, the SCC called on the army to take charge of the National Library and Archives until a specialised committee of historians can be formed to run it.

Abdel-Aziz, meanwhile, claims that the ministry and many of Egypt's cultural institutions have been monopolised by leftist and Marxist ideology at the expense of other voices. But even if the minister's intention is to do no more than open up the official culture to more diverse views there are certainly forceful elements who would like him to replace the alleged leftist monopoly with an Islamist one.

Tareq Noman, the SCC's temporary secretary-general, believes the Muslim Brotherhood has a long-term plan to use culture ministry facilities across the country as a vehicle for spreading its own ideas. He told Ahram Online:

"I'm afraid there's a huge amount of political money that is waiting to enter Egypt to spread Brotherhood ideas using the facilities of the ministry of culture. To do so, however, the Brotherhood needs to deconstruct the ministry's central administration.

"The real tampering with Egyptian culture is yet to come."

Minister Abdel-Aziz, on the other hand, insists that his fight is with elitism and vested interests. Reuters reports:

Speaking at the dusty state publishing house where he has set up camp, Abdel Aziz told Reuters he would ban nothing. Rather, he would support "people's art" beyond the capital, end corruption inherited from the old regime and see that cultural spending reflects how democratic revolution has changed Egyptian society.

"My concern is providing cultural services throughout Egypt, not financial benefits for a few intellectuals," he said ...

Given the history of the culture ministry under Farouk Hosni, that is not an unreasonable point. Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha 

"It is true that this minister has been firing long-standing ministry officials in preparation for carrying out the religious rulers' policies of making ministry activities halal, threatening Culture within the State. And that, in theory, is worth protesting against.

"But what about the fact that Culture within the State has always succumbed to religious pressure anyway, that nothing of any importance has ever come out of the ministry in recent memory, that the ministry has always been corrupt and ineffectual?"

The battle for the culture ministry, along with the recentappointments of Islamist governors for Egyptian provinces, looks set to become another flashpoint in the wider confrontation between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters.

A more constructive approach, though, would be to have a genuine debate about the relationship between culture and state in post-revolution Egypt: is it really necessary to have a culture ministry and, if so, what should its role be?

But at present there's little prospect of that. More and more, the Brotherhood seems to be copying the high-handed behaviour of the Mubarak regime even if its ideological goals are different.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Thursday, 20 June 2013