Minister of culture stirs fears of 'religionisation of culture'

Mohammed Saad , Wednesday 29 Jul 2015

Minster of Culture
Minster of Culture Abdel-Wahed El-Nabawy (Photo: Ayman Hafez)

Egyptian Minister of Culture Abdel-Wahed El-Nabawy, fired the head of Egypt's National Book Organization, Ahmed Megahed, on Monday 27 July, as part of a series of dismissals that targeted the ministry's top officials.

El-Nabawy sacked the Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Culture, Mohammed Afifi, and the head of the National Center for Translation, Anwar Moghith, last June, citing no reason for the decision.

The dismissals stirred up Egypt's intellectual society, which described the minister's policies as 'destructive.' Intellectuals added that the minister "lacks any cultural vision" and a number of them called for El-Nabawy to be relieved of his post.

A group of intellectuals met with Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb on Monday to air grievances about the minister's policy and his 'mismanagement of the cultural scene and the lack of cultural vision.'

The group included writer and scenarist Waheed Hamed, poet Sayyid Hijab, novelists Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid and Youssef El-Qaeed, artist Mohamed Abla, and director Khaled Youssef.

Writer Helmy El-Namnam, the head of the Egyptian Library and Archives, was appointed as acting head of the General Egyptian Book Organization after the minister refused to renew Megahed's tenure.

The sacking campaign that the minister has been undertaking since June reminded the intellectual society in Egypt of a similar scene when the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Minister of Culture, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, appointed by the ousted president Mohamed Morsi in May 2013, fired all the heads of the Ministry's sectors, including the current minister, when he was head of the Egyptian National Archives.

Abdel-Aziz fired the heads of the Book Organization, the National Archives, and the Opera House. He also pressured the Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Culture to resign, a move that elicited opposition from the intellectuals who fear that the dismissals are a move towards giving the Brotherhood the key cultural institutions. A group of intellectuals broke into the Ministry of culture and launched an open sit-in on 6 May 2013 until Morsi was ousted in 3 July of the same year.

The similarities echoed the fears of 'religionisation' of culture as El-Nabawy comes from Al-Azhar University, where he teaches history and has been cooperating very closely with the ministry of religious affairs.

Some commentators see the sackings as a move to cut back on the ministry's secularism, which was introduced by the ex-minister of culture, Gaber Asfour, who was ousted in the previous cabinet reshuffle last March. The ouster of Asfour has been attributed to his strongly secular tone, as he spoke openly against the religious authority and has upset Al-Azhar on a number of occasions with statements that were deemed offensive.

Asfour has vocalized the need to renew religious discourse, calls that have also been made on a number of occasions by President El-Sisi. The tone used by Asfour, his aides, and the people that he relied on to run the ministry upset the religious authorities. This is believed to be largely the reason for his ouster.

The intellectuals who met the Prime Minister said that he listened to their views on the cultural situation and that he vowed to study their demands and asserted the importance of culture and creativity.

The Minister of culture, who emphasized his 'appreciation' for the role played by every official in his ministry, justified not keeping them in their positions by saying that 'the ministry needed  fresh blood.' This statement comes despite the fact that all the officials he sacked were appointed only a year ago, except for Megahed who has been at his post for five years.

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