Egypt's Ministry of Culture held a three-day public conference - 'Egyptian Culture at the Forefront' - at Cairo Opera House and the Supreme Council of Culture earlier this week.
Held between 1-3 October, with discussion spread across 12 sessions, the conference aimed to discuss disappointments and aspirations regarding Egyptian culture following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July.
The hall was barely half-full, but those in attendance were eager to share their thoughts.
During the opening session, which discussed 'the role of culture in facing the marginalisation of thought and creativity,' Anwar Mogeith, Professor of Philosophy, openly stated his belief that Islamist groups, threatened by democracy and arts and culture, have attacked intellectuals.
Other topics raised during the session were the importance of tending to technological research and the development of energy sources, the urgent need to address illiteracy, the rights and roles of special needs in society and the cultural scene, and reviving the palaces of culture across the country.
One of the speakers expressed his disappointment that the Minister of Culture, Mohamed Saber Arab, only attended the opening ceremony and wasn’t present during the discussions. Another expressed hope that the results of the conference are not less bold than the questions and issues raised.
A number of attendees heatedly expressed their frustration at government and the Ministry of Culture. Moderator Magdy Aly urged participants to adopt positive attitudes, saying, "do not give up on change and let go of old grudges so we can move forward."
Amira Zidan moderated a session titled: 'The role of intellectuals in laying the foundations for a civil state. “Though it may seem ambitious to discuss a civil state, we must start defining it for ourselves now, before we even dream of reaching it," she urged.
During the session literary critic Ibrahim Fathy spoke about Egyptian identity and its prevalence within Egyptian novels.
“In times of oppression and corruption, the system is but a façade that does not express the peoples' will; the novel becomes more truthful to the street,” Fathy reflected, explaining that novels act as time-capsules, freezing conceptions of Egyptian identity across the decades, and as such can be used as a tool to evoke social change.
The question was posed: "Has Egypt ever been a civil state?"
“Yes,” declared Gaber Asfour - former director of the Translation Centre and brief Minister of Culture during the cabinet reshuffle by Mubarak in January 2011. Asfour evoked the history of the civil state project and its elusive pursuits and failures to date, starting with the 1923 constitution. In his opinion, encouraging tolerance is essential to developing a civil state.
More skeptical was literary critic Wael El-Semary, who spoke of the Ministry of Culture’s chaos and lack of vision. “We must reach people through culture workshops that have clear aims to really achieve anything,” he said, adding that the building of a civil state must become a national project.
Mona Tolba, professor of Arabic literature, questioned why the Egyptian people accepted a religious system; what bought them to this point? She speculated the reason is linked to a strong desire for a state identity, which many people thought would be built through religion.
Tolba defines culture as an experience in collective memory; "It is a fine thread that links all people from the era of the pharaohs up to this day."
Amidst such philosophical musings, film director Mohamed El-Shennawy questioned the title of the conference, asking what "Egyptian Culture at the forefront" relates to. “Corruption? Terrorism? Bureaucracy? Ignorance?” he offered as suggested answers.
Independent director Salam Yousry spoke about the need to support theatre in the independent art scene, suggesting providing small funds to a number of performance groups in order to expand the field.
Writer Mohamed Hefzy suggested El-Hanager Art Center’s Cinema, currently closed, as a space for independent film screenings.
Director Hany El-Metennawy recalled 23 years of trying to get the government to support independent art projects. "It has never given substantial support," he said.
Reflecting on a number of issues raised, renowned novelist Bahaa Taher listed three main concerns worthy of further attention: Egypt’s cultural identity, achieving a modern civil state, and freedom of expression.
The conference produced 14 demands, which will be presented to the Prime Minister. They include the following:
- Raising the national budget for cultural activities, and sustaining independent art initiatives free from restraints.
- The independence of creative works from current censorship, and restriction of work by age.
- The restoration of the General Authority of Mass Culture, currently The General Authority for Cultural Palaces.
- The opening and renovation of all cultural palaces across Egypt's governorates, and involvement of independent artists.
- Easing the process of obtaining leases and permits to use neglected places for cultural projects, such as under bridges.
- The representation of tribal cultures and other minorities in the Higher Council of Culture.