Censorship continues to force itself on Egypt's cultural scene

Sayed Mahmoud, Sunday 29 May 2011

Despite an open attitude by the Minister of Culture with regard to censorship, some government officials still bear the old mindset

An observer of the Egyptian cultural scene after the 25 January Revolution in regard to censorship on creativity and freedom would see inconsistencies between the revolution’s demands for freedom and social justice and the resistance of some organizations to these calls.

In April, Dar El-Ein publishing house released a statement that Ibrahim Farghaly's book Sons of Gabalawy was banned by the Foreign Publications Censorship. Similar announcements were made about other foreign books, including the famous "The Prophet" by Jibran Khalil Jibran. Ironically, the censorship on foreign publications body was active in a ministry that was officially dismantled in the last cabinet shuffle, namely the Ministry of Media.

Other actions are also cause for concern. The head of the Libraries Sector in the Ministry of Education, an education expert, is being investigated for allowing the novel Amber Birds by Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid to be available in school libraries run by the ministry. The problem, as described by a teacher, is that the novel contains “sexual expressions." In another incident, a lawyer in Beni Suef (some 200km south of Cairo) filed a lawsuit against human rights activist Karim Saber, author of the short stories collection, Where is God, accusing him of despising and mocking religious rituals.

Many human rights organizations have condemned such actions, including the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, which expressed concern about the return to such a debate as the 25 January Revolution which aims to liberate the Egyptian people. The organization said it could not "conceive that restrictions were still being made to art and creativity; that no one should be allowed to play the role of a guardian to the citizens and bring art to court on their behalf, as did the old regime.”

These censorship issues have largely been excluded from public debate because cultural and artistic affairs have not been prominent in the platforms of newly founded parties. This is troublesome given the rising power of conservative religious groups, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Salafist movements, which tend to restrict artistic freedom and view art as a way to preach moral education.

One notable example is the release of a statement by the head of the Theatre House writer Al-Sayed Mohamed Aly that prohibited future performances of "Prayer of the Crown", a play by Rasha Abdel-Monim based on a novel for Taha Hussein, for “pornographic” scenes. The statement was later retracted by the Minister of Culture, Emad Abou-Ghazi who allowed the performances to continue. Such positive intervention doesn't fully reflect the Ministry's stance, however. Despite its Minister's enlightened position, some authorities there still generally oppose freedom and creativity.

There are positive developments that should be mentioned, however. The Minister of Interior has announced that establishing new publishing houses no longer requires approval by state security, a step very much welcomed by publishers. Also welcomed are statements by the head of Artistic Censorship, Al-Sayed Khattab, announcing the end of political censorship and requesting a new organizational mandate that limits the organization’s role to age classification. Khattab asked civil society organizations to support his request to adjust the law governing the work of the organization to transform it into one concerned with protection of intellectual property rights. Yet he acknowledged that a change is unlikely without a newly elected parliament. Such a step, truly "revolutionary," would have to be postponed, like many other changes needed to liberalize Egypt’s cultural scene and separate it from the state.


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