NCHR President Moushira Khattab inaugurated the panel, together with House of Representatives Human Rights Committee Head Tarek Radwan and Culture, Media and Antiquities Committee Head at the Senate Mahmoud Mosallam.
Human development researcher Magdi Abdel-Hamid, NCHR Civil and Political Rights Committee Head Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat and the present writer – in her capacity as NCHR Cultural Rights Committee head – also participated.
The three sessions and round table discussions saw valuable interventions from parliamentarians, authors, critics, actors, producers and scholars from various disciplines, with the intentional conflation of academic and creative freedom affirming the notion that creativity – in the sense of innovation and renewal – need not be confined to a technically creative endeavour. In this piece I want to present the main points made by the participants, leaving the recommendations of the panel for a new article next week.
The participants tackled some of the obstacles facing freedom of creativity and academic freedoms, such as the multiple censorship authorities, the persecution of artists and innovators through parliamentary motions, lawsuits or social media smear campaign as well as the rote learning that continues to be the core of the education system. Dominating debates was the question of who is responsible for narrowing the space of cultural and academic freedom, with three principal positions.
The first is that the Salafi orientation of the whole society, by exerting continuous pressure to tighten censorship and restrict freedoms under the slogan “protecting the nation’s constants”, is behind the decline. The battle for freedom, it was noted, dates back long before the 1970s – the period generally believed to have seen a return to conservatism – with such figures as Ali Abdel-Raziq and Taha Hussein courting controversy in the so called Liberal Era. Some participants agreed with this view but others argued against generalisation, claiming that, rather than the whole of society, it is a particular, well funded political current with a loud voice and the ability to swarm social media that is behind the phenomenon.
The second position is that Egypt has always been a top-down society, with each of us holding a pyramid inside them. The bottom line is that, if the government wants something done that thing is done. And yet the state’s progressive stance on women’s rights is many steps ahead of society. The state has two instruments: education, which can combat fossilisation of thinking and recycle old ideas; and the law, which can deter incursion on public and private freedoms by those who consider themselves moral gatekeepers. As for the third position, it is that the responsibility must be shared equally between society and the state, since it would not be objective to hold either party fully responsible for the decline of creative freedom.
The material returns of creativity were repeatedly mentioned in connection with their moral benefits, since the arts help with the Egyptian citizens psychological makeup and, in the form of soft power, helps to implement Egyptian foreign policy and reinforce Egypt’s regional influence. If one of the main objectives of the Structural Reform Programme 2021-2024 is turning to high added value industries and services, which are characterised by intensive technological and knowledge components, then the realisation of that objective hinges on unleashing innovation and encouraging the production of creative ideas capable of competing in world markets.
In other words, regaining external demand for Egypt’s exports of human resources, cultural and academic services requires the enjoyment of a comparative advantage and a degree of individuality in comparison with other nations. This in turn calls for rethinking freedom of creativity and academic freedoms taking the financial variable into account. We should never forget that remittances of Egyptians working abroad are, together with the Suez Canal revenues, the most important sources of foreign currency in the light of the problems facing tourism globally. Moreover, paying more attention to cultural industries, the quality of education and scientific research will help to generate job opportunities in the local market and this will help to balance the large-scale urban renaissance Egypt has been seeing in the last few years.
A third major issue is where should we start in terms of liberating cultural and academic creativity? What are the mechanisms that should be applied in order to face Egyptian cultural and academic decline? Leading to the panel’s recommendations, this will be the subject of my second article.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.