Upcoming Egyptian Writers Union elections sees new faces but no new customs

Sayed Mahmoud, Thursday 28 Apr 2011

Despite the slew of new faces nominated for the board of Egypt’s Writer’s Union, the history and membership structure render fundamental change highly unlikely

Friday, 29 April will witness the start of the board elections for the Egyptian Writers' Union; the first for this body following the January 25 Revolution.

Although it’s known that the union is the first body of the sort to publicly support the Egyptian revolution from the beginning and all the way until the former president Mubarak stepped down, the union has not gone untouched amidst the rallies for change that has affected many organisations.

The union voted on 11 March to for the dissolution of their board and called for new elections “with judicial control so it becomes a first and a precedence in the history of the union that carries the name of Egyptian writers and authors,” according to their statement.

Among the interesting characteristics of these elections is the huge number of nominees, which reach 102; mostly new faces entering the competition for the first time next to known, experienced faces.

The previous head of the union, Mohamed Salmawy, competes on the basis of the many services he offered during his previous terms, such as allocating a budget for health treatment from a grant given by the ruler of Emirate of Sharjah, in addition to establishing the new location for the union in the Citadel of Saladin through a ministry of culture grant.

These achievements, however, were not enough to attract more Egyptian writers. Their membership remained unchanged and none of the board members of the past 15 years were able to make those changes.

The obstacle lay in how the union was established. It was born in 1975, during a time when there was a strong polarisation between leftwing and rightwing writers in the early seventies.

Youssef El-Sebaii, an officer, was appointed by former president Sadat with the intention of “filtering the leftwing influence” from Egyptian cultural organisations.

Sadat’s government bound it tightly to their ministry of culture, according to a study by the French orientalist, Richard Jackmond. It resembled a mix between a fascist union and a public writers’ union common at the time.

El-Sebaii was assassinated and Tharwat Abaza took the reigns, just to maintain his predecessor’s status quo - which meant the exclusion of leftwing writers from membership. What’s interesting is that this group never felt enthusiasm for the idea of a union, but rather used it like any rightwing organisation.

The famous attack on Nobel prize winner, Naguib Mahfouz in 1997 influenced many literary figures to campaign for purging of the union, and some reformists even ran for successful elections in 1997.

Although names such as Bahaa Taher, Gamal El-Ghitany, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid and Ibrahim Aslan managed to become members amid a highly-politicised election process that continued the polarisation, their enthusiasm for change was soon demolished under the weight of the problems with the union’s formal ties to the ministry of culture of an autocracy that left it, for 35 years, dangling between its ambition of being a real, professional union and its reality as a civil organisation that offers services to semi-unknown members – in the best cases, non-famous writers.

A glance at the nominee list reflects a powerful dominance by those far from the spotlight, who push their weight that also keep El-Sebaii’s status quo since the 70’s, such as the Story Club and the Writers Association, which push for their candidates.

Another set of Egyptian writers from other regions campaign for a position on the board as their sole means to travel to conferences and enjoy the “social status” of a literary from a small village amid the noise of the big capital.

Egypt’s revolution hardly changed the historical setup, yet, it gave those nearly-unknown names a chance to run, benefiting from the mood for change.

At a time when the rich, revolutionary spirit pushes new faces, such as the innovative poets, Faris Khedr and Fathi Abdel-Samii, they still have not changed the game.

People still join for the prestige of attending conferences and in addition, Sherif El-Gayyar, Salah El-Rawy, Ahmed Antar Mostafa, Mohamed Abu-Doma and Gamal El-Talawy still all run under the same coalition networks, pushing themselves through their presence in the Story Club and the Authors’ Association, as well as full-time work outside the cities.

It’s difficult to discern the differences between the nominees, especially that all their platforms were on supporting services, such as housing, health insurance, not to mention promising things difficult to achieve under the current laws.

Examples include clearing out their membership and “defining an identity that is not rightwing but rather is independent from other organisations,” which are all pushed by the younger generation, however, it’s difficult among these conditions to experience fundamental changes.

The results will likely be to regenerate the past and re-shape its history and symbols into new shapes.

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