After two months in office, Ezzedine Choukri has had just enough time to get a dialogue started with the intellectual community of Egypt; a true challenge for the new Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Culture, who is considered an ‘outsider’ among that aspect of society.
There’s a lot to hope for but lots to do as he explains his vision to transform the Council.
Ahram Online (AO): What would you consider to be your project for the Supreme Council for Culture; an organisation known to come under the Ministry of Culture, yet required by law to set cultural policies and monitor the ministry?
Ezzedine Choukri (EC): When accepting this role, I had one main thought in mind: we’re in transition, therefore we have to respond to some short- and medium-term issues, yet at the same time we cannot ignore the long-term concerns.
In the short term, restructuring the council is the target. With all due respect to the members of the organisations, the current Board and its 22 committees belong to an era that has now passed and we’re looking for change. The whole regime has changed and we should not only respond to that, but embrace it.
In the long term, my plan is to deal with the rifts in the Egyptian culture and way of life. There are numerous dimensions and aspects of that culture and so far they haven’t found any answers, and for those who have found answers, these were never coherently intertwined, therefore did not allow culture to move forward as one consistent entity. In order to allow this to be operational, the policies need to facilitate a suitable environment, but not to push it.
AO: After two months, how do you judge your achievements so far?
EC: Overall, my assessment is that the interaction has been positive. It’s unrealistic to expect much as change is difficult; it’s easier to fall back into the old patterns of doing work. But so far the restructuring meetings have gone well and intellectuals have contributed to the debate.
The volunteers came up with an agenda for a two-day meeting this week to discuss ideas for this ambitious scheme. This process in itself is a model for how we can work together, with more than 200 people invited.
We do not think that we will be able to get a whole restructuring plan in place, but rather to collect exchanges and then formulate a plan and open it to public debate. Once all the feedback is gathered, we’ll devise the regulatory framework for the plan
The second achievement is censorship, and this has two dimensions, social and legal. We’re going to follow a similar process to start a debate in June.
On the publications front, we sent out a competition for publishers who have a complete project that could be implemented by the Council.
As far as the committees are concerned, they will all finish their term this summer, and we’ll start the new membership process in September. Whether we’ll be done with the restructuring plan by then or not, we’ll still use the guidance we have received from the discussion and debate. I’m expecting a massive change in the next round of committees.
AO: Do you believe that the restructuring will be based on projects such as that of Adel El-Siwy, or the proposal by the Coalition of Independent Culture, and to what extent will the final proposal build on such alternative visions?
EC: Let me be clear that we do not submit our own ideas. Our role is not to replace society, but rather to empower social actors to implement their ideas. In order to for ideas such as these to travel, they need to become implementable and that’s the state institution’s role. The very final project should have ideas from everyone in order to be implemented. Just to be clear, we’re not expecting consensus.
Another dimension of this story relates to the relationship of the Ministry of Culture with the Supreme Council for Culture. We’ll need to think about two potential realities in the future: one in which both organisations exist, and one in which only the Council exists, as was the original plan when it was created in 1980.
AO: Do you believe this is feasible before the upcoming parliament?
EC: In the end we will come up with a law and work hard to pass it. If we have to wait until parliament is elected, we will do so, but we’ll try to pass the law through other routes such as the cabinet. But meanwhile we’ll do our best within the capacities of the current law: the law indicates the committees are to be formed, but doesn’t indicate whether they’re by appointment or election.
We’ll use whatever society comes up with and let them take the lead to create a project and rally around it rather than create one and enforce it.
AO: You have announced your intention to host the Intellectuals Conference lead with “Writers for Change”. Is there a risk that this enhances the image of the council as a ‘farm’ for intellectuals?
EC: In fact what we do is exactly the opposite. From now on, we’re working to empower and offer support for intellectuals to bring out the best in them. If the group of “Writers for Change” hadn’t approached me, I would have probably done this myself. This reputation was based on the habit of bringing in the more ‘wild’ intellectuals to ‘tame’ them from within, but now we’re offering space and support without controlling any agendas or recommendations.
I myself approached the editor of Al-Kitaba Al-Okhra (The Other Writings) offering him financial support to get the publication going, but there will be no interference whatsoever in the content.
We hope that the independent cultural scene will be an integral part of the whole cultural scene. In fact all cultural production should be independent. As a planning body, it’s not really our intention to ‘produce’ anything, but rather to support and offer what we can, such as the venue for events, logistical support etc. In the future, this will become the responsibility of the committees.
AO: Are there any particular efforts to make the council a more inclusive body to counter its reputation as an ‘exclusive’ organisation?
EC: First we need to clarify that the council is a central body: we will not have any branches or offices anywhere other than here in the capital. Yet we will empower people from all over Egypt to come and join the council. This is very important and we’re keen to see representation during the creation of the new committees. There must be geographic, gender, ethnic, minority and also school representation.
There is of course a communication issue right now, and it will require additional reaching out, but we’re also expecting others to contact us and make the additional effort to bridge the gap.
One example of this is the two-day event at the end of this week. We started out by creating separate lists that could overlap, and then we sent out advertisements everywhere, including online, asking people to come even if they haven’t registered. None of our sessions are closed or private; all the discussions are open and accessible to anyone.
AO: Do you really expect all this change to be made possible within the current Board?
EC: This is a highly political topic, but we hope that the board will be changed this summer. It will either be through voluntary departure or the decision of the Prime Minister. We have to be careful here as the issue again is not the individuals, but rather the fact that it’s a new era and new rules and concepts are needed. We’ll see where the cultural community is inclined and if it will require some arbitration. The choices for the Board are to leave or risk being marginalised as changes take place.
But we must be cautious so that overall change will take place very slowly as is the nature of institutions. As we start to affect the livelihoods of people, we must be flexible. We cannot move things around too much or too fast. We have the right to a radical vision, but have to stay open in regard to timing.
AO: What do you see as the ‘headings’ of the cultural policies in the coming period?
EC: Promoting diversity, independent cultural productions, engaged dialogue with positive engagement and intertwining the parallel cultures. Egyptian culture can never be an ‘illumination unto the nations’ unless it starts being a ‘light’.
By embracing our diversity and promoting our values, we must become open to the world, and then it will be an example to learn from. We do not need to emulate but rather try to find answers to everyone’s problems.
Tahrir Square was a great example of this where everyone found a role for themselves. We’re all part of a bigger culture and though distinctive, are not separate.
AO: What are your thoughts regarding the development of the cinema, theatre and the visual arts?
EC: All this will be determined by each respective committee given their own challenges and structures. Right now my thoughts are just as good as anyone elses. Our role is not to think for them, but to promote clear thinking which will then support change in each sector as required. We’re helping them to find their own suitable policies, together with their respective stakeholders.
AO: You seem to be talking about a completely different scene from what is being promoted today in Egyptian society, becoming more conservative, less tolerant and more closed!
EC: Culture and society are inseparable, and I have always been a pessimist. In December 2010 I even wrote about a horrific future that faces countries with increasing intolerance by 2020. But luckily I was proved wrong.
In January and February something changed … something showed itself. The signs of intolerance we see could very well be the outcome of a repressive regime, and what we see in the sectarian strife is nothing but a reflection of this past.
We have opened up the box and are now facing our own demons, yet we cannot afford to close it. We should let them all out. The cultural scene should aim to protect this openness, and hopefully create a framework within which the new evolved culture of diversity can one day emerge.