Writer, translator and minister of culture during the Nasserite era, Tharwat Okasha, who is referred to as the founder of Egypt’s cultural institutions, died on Monday 27 February in Cairo. He was 91.
Tharwat Okasha (1921 – 2012) was an army officer involved in the Free Officers Movement, along with former president Nasser and his comrades, which toppled King Farouk of Egypt from his crown in what is known as the July Revolution of 1952.
As a child of an aristocratic family, Okasha received a good education, read books in foreign languages, and learned music very early on in his home. This background made him the most cultured and enlightened officer among his group of army officers.
The intelligent young man, who was known for his rich, ample knowledge, was appointed minister of culture in the late 1950s by President Nasser.
Okasha held the position twice from 1958 to 1962 and, again, from 1966 to 1970. The two terms made him the most prominent minister of culture in Egypt’s modern history.
Okasha received his PhD in literature from Sorbonne in the 1960’s and worked as visiting scholar at the College De France.
He published more than 70 books, including his three-volume memoir titled My Memoirs in Politics and Culture, which is considered a rich resource for historians of the Nasserite era; as well as a 38-volume encyclopedia of arts titled The Eye Listens and the Ear Sees.
During his terms in ministerial posts, he founded many cultural institutions that are still functioning and considered major Egyptian landmarks. For example, he founded the High Council for Culture and Arts (now called the Supreme Council for Culture), the Egyptian Book Organisation and, most importantly, the Arts Academy.
Though he’s referred to as one of the great promoters of culture, historian Sherif Younis, who is known as a critic of the July revolution, told Ahram Online that we cannot interpret his achievements apart from their context: which is the authoritarian rule established by the Free Officers.
"During his time, the ministry of culture became a tool in the state’s hand to absorb intellectuals into their fold, controlling media, press and culture, monopolising the news and spreading knowledge to reshape and control the mentality of the population," Younis explained.
On the other hand, former minister of culture, Emad Abu-Ghazi, sees that, unlike most of the highly authoritarian Nasserite regime institutions, the ministry of culture opened the way for some kind of diversity and multiplicity.
“It’s not the Nasser-era ministry of culture that should be blamed: it’s the whole regime. The Nasser regime wanted to control the whole society: they prohibited liberties and controlled every inch in the country, so blaming Okasha for the Nasser regime would be wrong,” Abu-Ghazi said.
"The ministry was a space of diversity during his terms: you could find communists working next to Nasserites in the same place," he added.
Writer Helmy Neaman agrees with Younis regarding the ministry of culture as a tool for the authoritarian Nasserites, yet, he says, there's still a lot to credit to Okasha. He was able to build these cultural edifices and support a distinguished culture that today Egypt lacks within the authoritarian framework that took over, which is why we still remember Okasha and can never remember any other minister of culture from the Nasserite era.
Whether Okasha was working for the state or for the promotion of culture and intellectuals, his major role does not only lie in being a minister, but in his authoring and translating tens of books, ranging between art, politics and philosophy, says Abu-Ghazi.