Who will Egypt artists vote for?
Farah Montasser, Wednesday 16 May 2012
As fears of an Islamist crackdown on freedom of creativity rise, leftist candidates Khaled Ali and Hamdeen Sabbahi appear to be the preferred choices for country's next president among the artistic community


The countdown for the presidential race has begun. In only nine days, Egyptians will head to the polls to vote for Egypt's first post-Mubarak head of state. Thirteen candidates of different political backgrounds are vying for the presidency, but among Egypt's artistic community, only a few of these have received a warm reception. Among the candidates most popular among the arts crowd are leftist Khaled Ali, Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi and – in some cases – moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.

Over the past month, Ahram Online spoke to Egypt's artists and intellectuals to determine which candidate was the creative community's preferred choice for president.

To vote or not to vote

One of Ahram Online's first findings was the prevalence of the idea of boycotting elections entirely. When Mohamed ElBaradei pulled out of the race in January, some of his biggest supporters – including Egyptian actors Khaled El-Nabawi and Gihan Fadel – decided to boycott the electoral process.

"Holding presidential elections under military rule and without a constitution is a joke," El-Nabawy said in a statement on Facebook. "I miss ElBaradei every day." But when a fan living abroad asked the actor for advice on whom to vote for, El-Nabawi replied: "Sabbahi – although I'm against the idea [of elections in general]." It remains unclear until now whether the actor will cast a ballot himself. "I still haven't made up my mind," he recently said.

Fadel, on the other hand, has made it clear several times that she is definitely boycotting elections. "I plan to boycott elections, but if I were to vote it would be between Ali and Sabbahi," she stated recently on Facebook. The actress denied any links to the Abul-Fotouh campaign after rumours emerged that she was among his supporters.

Nihad Selaiha, professor of theatrical arts and theatre critic, supports the boycott idea. "I don’t like any of the candidates," she told Ahram Online. "We must have a constitution first before we can elect a president."

She added: "How can one elect a president without knowing his duties and responsibilities? It's a big farce."

Hamdeen Sabbahi: Artists' choice

Egyptian actor Khaled El-Sawy, for his part, has used Facebook and Twitter – along with his blog – to raise awareness about the importance of voting, and why he prefers Sabbahi. El-Sawy says he will vote for the leftist candidate in order to "protect Egypt's revolution and achieve its objectives."

He went on to describe Sabbahi as "the only man at the moment who can recover Egypt's former glory; a man of vision with a concrete plan."

The more Ahram Online investigated, the more it found Sabbahi to be the preferred choice among Egypt's artists. Notably, Egyptian actors Khaled Saleh, Nabil El-Halafawy, Hany Salama, Randa El-Beheiry and Hanan Metawei, along with singers Simone and Ramy Gamal and filmmaker Isaad Younis, all appeared to favour Sabbahi.

"Our nation today is in serious need of a civil, open-minded leader – and Sabbahi fits perfectly," said El-Halafawy. "Another time I might have gone for Abul-Fotouh, but now I support a civilian state with no Islamist ideology."

El-Halafawy shared his views on Twitter following Egypt's first public presidential debate on Thursday (11 May) between Abul-Fotouh and Mubarak-era foreign minister Amr Moussa, which – given the two candidates' tepid performances – was seen by many as having strengthened Sabbahi's position.

"With all due respect to Abul-Fotouh, I don't trust that he will totally support the freedom of creativity and the arts," said Egyptian actor and goodwill ambassador Khaled Abul-Naga. "He failed to impress me during the debate, in which the issue of artistic freedom did not come up once."

Egyptian singer Simone, for her part, described Sabbahi on Twitter as a "guarantee for freedom."

Conductor and composer Hisham Gabr, meanwhile, told Ahram Online that he was voting for Sabbahi because of his "profound political history and the fact that he isn't a holdover from the Mubarak regime." Gabr, who sees all Islamist candidates as "potential threats to artistic creativity," went on to describe Sabbahi as "the only man who will support freedom in terms of arts and culture."

At one of Sabbahi's recent campaign rallies, Egyptian director Khaled Youssef and filmmaker Mohamed El-Adl both took to the podium to express support for the Nasserist candidate. "Sabbahi's popularity is growing; he's the man of this hour," El-Adl declared.

The Sabbahi campaign also enjoys the support of Egypt's prominent Okasha family. The daughter of late Egyptian scriptwriter Osama Anwar Okasha, Nesreen, recently declared on Facebook that if her father was alive, "he definitely would have supported Sabbahi."

Egyptian painter Omar El-Fayoumi, for his part, expressed dissatisfaction with the selection of candidates. "None of them really appeal to me," he told Ahram Online. "If everyone boycotts the elections, I'll boycott as well. If not, though, I'll vote for Sabbahi."

"Sabbahi is the best of a bad lot. He's rooted in Egyptian soil and history and has nationalistic views, though his pan-Arab concepts should not be a priority now," El-Fayoumi added. "I respect him for much of his history, but also see his appearance with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadaffi as black spots on his career."

Khaled Ali: Still in the running

"Initially, most of us wanted to boycott elections since we're still under military rule and there's no constitution. But after deliberating with artists in favour of a boycott, we realised we all must participate to determine our destiny," Egyptian director Ahmed Abdallah told Ahram Online. "I'm voting for Khaled Ali since he's honest and a revolutionary. Of all the candidates, I find him to be the closest to the revolution; he puts revolutionary demands first."

Hamdy Reda, artist, photographer and owner of Cairo's Artellewa art gallery, complained that Egypt's presidential elections were being held under military rule, "so I don't believe they will be conducted with transparency."

"My first choice would be Khaled Ali, since he's closely connected to the revolutionary movement and has a long history of championing workers' rights," Reda told Ahram Online. "My second choice is Sabbahi, though, since he opposed Mubarak for a long time and calls for improving society. But I have some reservations about his Nasserist leanings."

Creativity in a semi-Islamist state

Surprisingly, Abul-Fotouh, too, appears to have made inroads into Egypt's artistic community. On Friday (12 May), Egyptian writer and director Amr Salama released a video online explaining his support for the Abul-Fotouh campaign.

"I'll vote for Abul-Fotouh since he's the most popular and I find him moderate," Salama says in the video. "There's a public demand for the Islamic project and I don't see any harm in giving it a chance to please public opinion. Why not try and see?"

He added: "Abul-Fotouh has good ties with the ruling military and with liberals – of which I am one – and is even strong in terms of foreign relations."

Notably, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi appears to be the only serious presidential contender without any support among Egypt's artistic community.

To be decided

Many of those associated with Egypt's cultural scene, meanwhile, remain undecided about who they will vote for.

According to flagship state daily Al-Ahram, celebrated Egyptian actresses Miriam Fakhreddin and Safia El-Emary are both merely hoping for a candidate who will safeguard the rights of artists – especially female artists.

"I want our next president to bring back the glory days of [former Egyptian presidents] Nasser and Sadat," Fakhreddin was quoted as saying. El-Emary, for her part, asserted: "I want our next president to support Egyptian art, support artistic freedoms and grant women their rights in society.

Egyptian actor Sherif Mounir, meanwhile, said that, "As an actor and artist, I don’t know where we – as a country – are going." Dissatisfied with all candidates, Mounir believes they should make more of an effort to explain their positions to a sceptical public.

"It's not enough to say, 'I'll make a change here or there.' We have to know how exactly these changes will happen and what their consequences will be," Mounir told Ahram Online. "Are their political and economic plans, drawn up in consultation with specialists in their respective fields?"

"We also see art coming under threat. Some candidates should explain what they're planning to do in terms of Egyptian arts and culture," Mounir added. "I expect our next president to represent, protect and lead all Egyptians, not only those of a particular social segment. He should also have a good deal of charisma and political experience, but so far I don’t see anyone like that on the horizon."

Egyptian filmmaker Tamer El-Saeed voices similar uncertainty about the upcoming presidential contest. "I'm still undecided. I'm opposed to a process that puts undue restrictions on candidates, be it in terms of acquiring citizens' signatures or setting time restrictions on electoral campaigning," El-Saeed told Ahram Online.

"We don't know much about the candidates and no one has managed to transmit a convincing message to me," he added. "Many candidates either play the religion card or on people's emotions."

After giving it some thought, El-Saeed said that, if he voted, he would cast his ballot for Khaled Ali.

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