Inside the culture ministry, located in Cairo's Zamalek district, artists and intellectuals have for the last two weeks been staging an ongoing sit-in in protest at the new culture minister's policies.
Artists and intellectuals stormed the ministry on 5 June and occupied the office of culture minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz, angered by his sacking of key culture officials and what they describe as attempts to "Brotherhoodise" Egypt's culture scene.
For two weeks now, the protesters inside the building have been occupying two large rooms on the ground floor of the two-storey building, which normally serve as a waiting room and a meeting room. As the protesters spend their days and night in the ministry, on the second floor, the employees continue their daily routine.
"We come to the office every day; check-in and out. There is not much change inside the building except that the two rooms on the ground floor are occupied by the protesting artists," Marwa, one of the employees at the ministry, tells Ahram Online.
"They are very peaceful people and do not bother anyone. They hardly move outside those two rooms. They decorated the hall with nice artwork. But there isn't much interaction between us," Ahmed, another employee, says.
"Abdel-Aziz shouldn't have fired all of those artists at once. This will naturally fuel great discontent," Ahmed comments. "He keeps talking about corruption. Of course there is corruption everywhere, including here, in this building. He needs to present proof and make an investigation first, then dismiss people."
Artists have placed an artwork inside the hall of the culture ministry (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
Another employee, Marawan, thinks that corruption was not the reason for the dismissals. "When Abdel-Aziz fires someone, he places someone on the chair instantly. When someone resigns, within a few hours he assigns a new person too. Abdel-Aziz does not know many people in the culture scene, and it is clear that he is following a pre-existing plan of action," he argues.
Ministry employee Mahmoud recalls the commotion that took place in the ministry on 5 June. "When the artists stormed in, it was an opportunity for us to kick out five members of the [Muslim Brotherhood's] Freedom and Justice Party brought in by Alaa Abdel-Aziz and placed in the office."
"One of them took charge of all external communication of the ministry; one was sitting next to the minister all day long. Maybe he was sort of an advisor," Mahmoud suggests.
"Those from the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) were not really mingling or talking to us; neither was the minister developing much communication with the employees inside the building," Ahmed added.
"He [Alaa Abdel-Aziz] doesn't have presence or strong character, not like Emad Abu-Ghazi or Mohamed Saber Arab had," Ahmed says, mentioning two of the five ministers who have served as minister of culture over the last two and a half years. "Abdel-Aziz doesn't even have experience in official document processing or letter-writing."
Following the incident on the 5 June, there were rumours that the minister had sacked several employees in response to the expulsion of the FJP members. Marwa, however, says that there were no dismissals.
"There are three people who Abdel-Aziz has wanted to remove from the office ever since he was given the ministerial chair; among them was the head of the Artistic Office, and head of Public Relations. Now the minister accuses those three of not preventing the storming of the building by the artists, making it a reason for his possible actions towards them," Marwa commented adding that those members of staff are on the governmental payroll and Abdel-Aziz can only downgrade them and move them to other offices.
According to the employees, there are over 170 persons working inside the ministry building now, including drivers, cleaners and security staff. Most of them are officially employed, while others are on short-term contracts or get paid on a daily rate. They add that, even prior to the artists' sit-in, information started circulating around the building that the number of people working at the location would be reduced to 125. As dismissal of those with official contracts is not possible, the minister would have to relocate the surplus to other offices operating under him.
In the meantime, most of the employees do not seem bothered by the unusual situation inside the building, although a few of them express worries about developments within the cultural scene as a whole.
"I am with the artists. They have a right to fight for what they believe in, and the minister should cooperate with them," employee Yousry tells Ahram Online.
However, another ministry employee, Mona, stresses that while artists and intellectuals do not interfere in any matters that do not concern them in the building, she would prefer that they leave. "The minister is not around anyway. Why don’t they [artists] follow the minister wherever he goes and make protests at those locations?" she asks.
It is apparent, however, that some of the employees feel a bit confused about the whole situation, and several refused to talk to the media.
Some of the employees say that there is much less work on their desks than usual due to the minister's absence. Equally, there is no control over their presence in the offices throughout the day. Nevertheless, they all underline that they do not feel threatened at any level. "The minister is not making any actions against us. He is processing all the financial and health-related issues in a timely manner. Our salaries are in progress, there are no cuts, and regular periodical bonuses are also in the pipeline," one employee explained.
Note: At their request, names of ministry employees have been changed.
Artwork in the making, placed at the entry to the culture minister's office. (Photo: Ati Metwaly)