An audience including around 60 artists and intellectuals gathered in the Palace of Fine Arts in Garden City, which serves as home for the Art Lovers Society. Attendees came to meet Shaker Abdel Hamid, the newly appointed minister of culture, accompanied by poet and critic Shaaban Youssef and Ahmed Nawar, head of the Art Lovers Society and until recently chairman of the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces.
The meeting took the form of an open dialogue during which the audience had the chance to ask questions related to the ministry, its plans and vision. The minister was eager to listen to the concerns of the audience and their suggestions for the improvement of the art and culture arena in Egypt.
In his opening speech, Shaaban Youssef underlined the unusual circumstances of the ministry, which saw four new ministers in the past 10 months.
Following the removal of the old cabinet, still under the Mubarak regime, on 31 January 2011, Farouk Hosni who served 24 years as minister of culture was replaced by Gaber Asfour, who resigned on 8 February. Mohamed El-Sawy, who was appointed minister on 20 February after the ouster of Mubarak on 11 February, was not welcomed by artists and was removed a few days later. Emad Abu Ghazi, appointed at the beginning of March, was more popular among intellectuals, yet on 20 November he resigned with the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf in opposition to brutal attacks on protesters. On 7 December, Shaker Abdel Hamid was appointed in the new cabinet of Kamal El-Ganzouri.
It was Abu Ghazi who served the ministry the longest time in the transitional government. In this time he managed to push forward several initiatives, though many issues remained unresolved. Shaaban Youssef underlined the enormous challenges Abdel Hamid faces —responsibilities that need to be confronted within the context of new realities and surfacing ideologies.
The audience underscored the importance of creating bridges between different artistic sectors, as well as between the art field and the audience, narrowing gaps that became tremendously large in recent years. In response, Abdel Hamid emphasised the importance of unity and dialogue. Referencing Taha Hussein, who in his book The Future of Culture in Egypt analyses the situation of Egyptian culture, Abdel Hamid pointed to Hussein’s understanding of cultural unity as a combination of national unity and an individual and collective state of mind, as well as socio-historical relations between past and present. Abdel Hamid added that many other important elements need be present in parallel with these values, including freedom and social equality.
“Egypt cannot be Islamic or military. Egypt’s culture needs to be unified. Being democratic means that everyone, including the army, Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis, and liberals are invited to discussions that aim to put arts and culture in their specific historical place. We live in the 21st century, respecting modernity and progress. Art understood through that lens will be promoted by the ministry. All cultural activities serving progress — not regress — will be encouraged and supported by the ministry.”
Abdel Hamid underlined in particular the importance of individual freedom and respect of individualism, where no one imposes their views on another person. “We need to reach civilised discussions, not aggression or force. Discussion is also one of the elements helping progress.”
A big part of the evening revolved around the importance of reaching out towards all the Egyptians and all social strata. This role can be performed by the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, one of the main sectors of the ministry operating in all Egyptian governorates. The organisation is a makeover of previous Mass Culture Division (Al-Thaqafa Al-Gamahireya) that was formed in 1960s and aimed to revive the cultural sector through support for artists and artistic activities to Egyptian provinces. Prominent playwright and intellectual Saad Eddin Wahda, was the first under secretary of mass culture and during his term he managed to reinvigorate arts in many governorates, by forming travelling theatre groups, supporting rural dramatic troupes, creating libraries in the provinces, among other activities. In 1990s, the Mass Culture Division was transformed into the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces.
The Mass Culture Division had a clear vision and role in Egyptian society. Over the years, the Organisation for Cultural Palaces did not manage to mirror the mission, organisation and dynamism of that division. The situation of over 500 palaces was deteriorating; many of them faced closure.
The audience agreed that it is important to return to values that were represented by the Mass Culture Division. Ahmed Nawar, who became chairman of the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces in 2005, shortly after the tragic fire in the theatre of Beni Suef Cultural Centre, killing tens of Egyptian artists. “I have visited the centre and I was shocked with the conditions of the theatre. It lacked basic theatrical facilities, technical and safety solutions. We decided to restore the centre as fast as possible.”
Nawar, who has recently resigned from the chairman position, stated that during his term he had asked a group of young photographers to completely document the state of all cultural palaces. “We were discovering real disasters. Fifteen thousand pictures showing mostly ruins or wrecked halls and rooms, buildings without a ceiling or a cultural house that looked much worse than a neighbouring car service outlet, with books dispersed on the floors or wrapped in plastic bags.”
Nawar continued by saying that Sohag's cultural palace was closed for seven years due to fire. “We managed to restore the place and bring it up to normal conditions.” Sohag palace was re-inaugurated in 2008. Nawar went on to enumerate the organisation's achievements over recent years in Minya, Suez and other cities, with much work reinvigorated during the past few months.
Yet, for the audience the problem was not limited to the conditions of cultural palaces. Many attendees underlined the need to reassess employees in the institutions. Many are not in any way related to the arts field and often are unable to add value to artistic activities. Both Nawar and Abdel Hamid agreed, adding that the ministry is already studying the issue. “We need lots of brainstorming sessions to find suitable solutions. We cannot give up on people working in culture, but there are decisions that need to be taken in order to allow the Egypt’s culture to move forward,” Abdel Hamid asserted.
“Maybe this is not the best answer at this moment, but this is the answer I have. We need to work and discuss many issues,” he added.
One of the topics raised by the audience related to art theft and how it is addressed in Egyptian law. The minister realises that there are many gaps in the law regarding penalties for art theft or art forgery. He added that the ministry needs to highlight those pitfalls in Cabinet meetings.
Abdel Hamid spoke also about his preliminary talks with the new minister of education. “We need to educate whole new generations in understanding the value of art. I hope that Egypt will soon have proper art curricula back in primary and secondary schools. It is through education that those young people will understand the value of fine arts and its role in society.”
Abdel Hamid went on to explain that it is the role of educators as well as intellectuals to transfer messages of artistic and literary value to a wider audience. “We often have to explain the ABC of those values,” Abdel Hamid said, referred to the understanding of literary texts, such as those written by Naguib Mahfouz whose works have been recently attacked by Abdel Moneim El-Shahat.
When asked about his view on the future of Egypt’s culture and whether he is optimistic or pessimistic, the minister replied: “I am very optimistic though not frantically optimistic. I realise the situation. I see what is happening; I read all the papers and I communicate with people. However, I am not worried about any limitations. Egyptians will never accept limitations to their freedom, or repression from whichever party. Freedom is a base for creativity. Religion is a wonderful thing, but it is very personal. Religion defines our personal relations, our relations with people; we do not need to turn religion into a repressive factor and Egyptians will never accept that. Any form of oppression is an enemy to creativity and progress, and Egyptians will never allow that to happen. Having that in mind, I am optimistic.”
Abdel Hamid concluded that his role in the ministry is transitional. He will continue work of his predecessor, Abu Ghazi, and in parallel he hopes to plant seeds that will eventually bear fruit for the future of Egypt’s arts and its cultural scene.