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Egypt's minister of culture speaks of hopes and plans for the ministry

Emad Abou-Ghazi's appointment as the new minister of culture comes at a time when long-hidden conflicts are coming to the surface, but he has hopes and plans for fixing the ministry and reaching out to Egypt

Sayed Mahmoud and Mary Mourad, Thursday 24 Mar 2011
 Emad Abou-Ghazi
Emad Abou-Ghazi (photo Medhat Abdel-Meguid)
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Inheriting an office laden with conflicts, accusations of corruption, requests, demands and a limited budget Emad Abou-Ghazi speaks of his hopes and plans for his term as minister of culture in a transitional cabinet.

Ahram Online: Seeing this teeming office, it appears as if all your time and effort will be spent on internal issues. How do you manage to balance handling all this and why spend so much time solving these problems?

Emad Abou-Ghazi: The ministry’s offices are laden with problems and employees aren’t satisfied. It is very difficult to try and do anything while the internal organisation is out of order.

Right now, I’m spending a lot of time listening to concerns from various groups to understand and try to resolve conflicts internally where possible.  Meanwhile many issues have already been referred to lawyers for investigation and suitable action. Corruption cases are referred directly to the attorney-general.

AO: You announced earlier that there will not be any direct appointment to jobs, and instead you will announce any vacancies, accept applications and select candidates openly. However, you have directly appointed two heads of organisations in the ministry. Have you changed your mind about the selection process?

EAG: What I have announced is that we will be competitively selecting candidates for the junior jobs first and then to the more senior posts in sequence. The junior positions will be announced shortly.

However, there were vacant organisation head’s jobs that had to be filled immediately and those are the ones that I have appointed. The remaining jobs will be announced in due course.

The appointment of Ahmed Megahed to the head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation came about as the post had been vacant for a long time ever since the previous head, Nasser El-Ansary passed away.  The appointment of Saad Abdel-Rahman as head of the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces was warmly welcomed, since he is originally from the organisation and not an outsider.

AO: The appointment of Ahmed Megahed to the General Book Organisation has stirred some controversey, particularly since his previous appointment in the Organisation for Cultural Palaces was marred with issues and he was even accused of corruption. Now instead of holding him accountable for this, he has been promoted.

EAG: No charges were confirmed against Megahed and I will not consider him guilty unless it is has been proved. In addition, he did a first-rate job in the previous organisation, and dismissed many managers and started investigations where corruption was suspected.

As a manager, he did a good job and this is what is needed now in the Book Organisation. He has plans for the organisation and brings his experience as a publisher as well.

AO: At a moment when the results of the constitutional amendment referendum and its process revealed a heightened role for religion in politics, how do you see the role of the Cultural Palaces, given their traditional capacity in reaching out to the public through their country-wide locations?

EAG: The plan from now on is to open every single location for public activities. Every stage, every cultural site currently locked by the employees, will be open for bands or groups for cultural activities, whether as part of the ministry, independent groups and even civil society cultural activities.

Right now a bunch of active young people from the ministry are leading an initiative to reach out via “cultural caravans” to the remote parts of Egypt. This will involve a number of organisations within the ministry, through a central committee, and is going to open all the locations which are now closed.

Our intention is to open the space for cultural groups throughout the country in these locations, including independent groups with limited resources. At such a time of revolution and change, art, music and the theatre are the best means to reach out to people, and the various sites run by the Cultural Palaces have many suitable spots, even halls, attached to museums.

My dream, even before the revolution, has always been to set up a stage in the open area in Tahrir Square once a week for performances.  Maybe the revolution will finally make it happen.

There are no funds for creating more buildings, but Egypt is blessed with a warm climate where outdoor activities can take place for the most part of the year. What we need is not a building, but rather an open space – a garden or parking lot – and a little money to get chairs and set up a stage.

Thousands are ready to take part in such initiatives but cannot find a place, and our role now is to offer the space. We would like to fill up every single night in the year with activities. It’s not clear why this is not already happening while there are many performances ready and suitable for this moment.

AO: Your past projects have revolved around the secular state and an African link. Are these projects still ongoing?

EAG: We live in a different time right now! These projects are always present, but now we need to focus on organising the house internally.

AO: What immediate actions are being planned by the ministry?

EAG: Tomorrow there will be a decree issued to set up a technical committee for all stages and art houses, and also create the management boards in all organisations. While there is currently an active board in the National Library and the Opera House, there is not one in the Book Organisation and this is very important.

AO: There was a proposal to dissolve the ministry of culture altogether, and to have a set of cultural funds to enable the funding of activities in the various organisations, and set up a separate entity for the National Heritage. What are your thoughts about this?

EAG: This is of course a topic for discussion, but personally, I disagree with such a proposal. Not only because many democratic countries such as France, have ministries of culture, but because I believe the real question is about the role. It is all about mobilisation or about setting up the cultural infrastructure for creativity and protecting our national heritage. I am ready to split from the Supreme Council for Culture and let it, as originally intended, become the monitoring body for the ministry from an independent body of intellectuals.

It would be ideal if the system allows for the democratic selection of the board and head of the council. The suggestion is for the subcommittees, each representing a wide variety of disciplines, such as theatre and music etc, to select its board and head. The heads would then meet to choose the board, which will then select its head through elections.

AO: How will you then set up the cultural policies in the coming period?

EAG: Right now, in a transitional government, we can only look at the immediate present, though we never lose track of the future. The current daily debates and discussions with intellectuals resembles a conference, though if one is needed I will not disagree of course.

The priority now is to organise the internal set-up. I have two important legal proposals, though I’m not sure if they will pass at this time or be held until parliament is formed.

The first is regarding the national archives; particularly now with the burning and destruction of documents.  It is apparent that there is no organisation for the management of our heritage and it is essential.

The second proposal is related to censorship. I am against cultural censorship, and my proposal is to organise a “rating” system, similar to that in other countries, where all production is rated clearly.

The role of the bureau will be to protect intellectual property. But it’s important to note that there’s no consensus around such a law. Many intellectual groups are against such an open setup and we must be conscious of society’s codes.

AO: In relation to the internal restructuring, there has been a request and a promise to reveal the ministry’s budget. Is this still on?

EAG: This promise was made by the previous minister and I am bound by it. In my previous position, I actually submitted the budget ready to put on the ministry’s website.

However, it is important to note that the budget is a very technical document and many parts of it are not relevant to the average person. Besides many items, such as wages and incentives, are not very flexible. I believe what’s important is to reveal the spending on cultural activities overall.

AO:  Cultural production in Egypt is going through a crisis right now. Other than the variety in quality, there’s poor marketing and distribution of books and other media. Do you have any plans in this regard?

EAG: There are some plans for a revival underway. One is the initiative by Megahed to set up 50 new outlets for the ministry’s products in 50 different Egyptian cities. This will not only enable the distribution of books, but also offer 200 jobs for young people, including a percentage of sales as incentives.

There is also a plan to open between fifteen and twenty outlets in universities, began by Gaber Asfour during his very brief ministerial term but never completed.

Finally there is the “portable book fair”, originally intended to start during this school term, but delayed due to current events. A plan for marketing museums is also now being studied, although the cultural tax fund (the financial fund from the ministry of tourism to the ministry of culture) is now reduced due to the decrease in tourism.

There are many plans and ways to encourage the export of books, music and movies, and offer incentives and customs exemptions.  However the priority in the short term is the restructuring of the ministry.

AO: You have mentioned that you will not continue as minister after this brief transitional term. Is this still the case? What are your plans for the future?

EAG: Ever since I was in the Supreme Council for Culture, I promised myself to finish my term in the ministry and retire from public work. My passion is for teaching. I started a number of research projects and never had time to complete them!

I look forward to returning to my papers and civil society activities in culture, which have diminished due to my workload. I look forward to going back to all these favourite activities.

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