Writers, thinkers voice hopes, fears about Egypt's incoming president

Mary Mourad and Mohammed Saad, Friday 18 May 2012

Ahram Online asks Egyptian writers, intellectuals - fearful for the future of creative freedoms - who they will vote for in next week's presidential poll

Bahaa Taher, Basma Abdel Aziz and Gabed Asfour
Bahaa Taher, Basma Abdel Aziz and Gaber Asfour

Egyptian writers have not come to agreement on a consensus candidate to support in the country's first post-Mubarak presidential elections.

Despite all the hype about the openness, fairness and democracy of Egypt's post-revolution electoral process, writers are disappointed in the overall process. There is a sense that any choice they make can only be the best-of-a-bad-lot rather than a real hope for the future.

"The best president will be one that doesn't try to interfere with freedoms; who will at least maintain the current conditions," was the reaction of Amr Ezzat, an Egyptian blogger and journalist.

Ezzat will support former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, simply because he has a good chance of winning and because, Ezzat says, he has the best campaign team among the leading candidates.

"There are leftists and Islamists – even liberals – among his campaign. If these individuals truly represent their respective political currents, this would certainly be a step forward in terms of freedoms," he believes.

Ezzat's nightmare scenario would be for the most conservative trend of the Islamist current – and least sympathetic to the youth of the revolution – to come to power.

"I'm supporting moderate Islamism in the face of extremism, with the hope that it can represent a step forward with a diverse current behind it," he said.

Not all writers and intellectuals are so succinct about their respective positions.

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, professor of political science and author of the Arabic Booker-shortlisted novel Embrace over Brooklyn Bridge, did not reveal who he would vote for. However, he cited his complicated criteria and questions for candidates.

"Nothing could ever stop creatives and writers; the most critical writers existed in the Soviet Union, the Mubarak era and all other repressive regimes, globally. Creatives have a way around it, and any regime that has the illusion of controlling what people watch and produce is delusional," Fishere explained.  

The real challenge, he adds, will be if culture and creativity are separated from public space and public life. He expressed fear that culture would be "boxed" into little spheres and only "consumed by the few 'addicts' in opera house and theatres."

His questions have yet to be answered by any of Egypt's 12 presidential contenders.

"Will they integrate theatres, libraries and literature curriculum in schools?" he asked. "Will culture be reduced and continue to be chased away from our education?"

For Fishere, the question is not only about creative freedoms. Fishere argues that it is wrong to say that the previous regime curbed dissidence by silencing speech, when mostly, he says, it limited the proliferation of voices and cultural venues.

"Sadly, we must admit that the role of the coming president will actually be very limited," Fishere concluded, voicing anxiety that civil society would have to take on the responsibility of forcing the coming regime to open the doors to creativity.

Basma Abdel-Aziz, psychiatrist, writer and winner of the Sawiris Cultural Award and the Ahmed Bahaadin Award, agreed with Fishere.

"I'm not afraid of any political currents taking over. I'm seriously afraid of the intellectual community right now. The creative community is taking steps backward and leaning towards negotiations and giving in to popular views, rather than standing by their values," Abdel-Aziz explained.  

She argued that creatives are not supposed to be politicised like everyone else. They should not simply regurgitate mantras, like "Egyptians aren't ready for this freedom" and "We have to wait until their awareness develops."

"The creative's role is to stay radical and true to their cause," she asserted. "If we're going to wait until people are 'aware,' we will never attain creative freedom, because awareness is a process and we have to help it."

Abdel-Aziz cites the case of Adel Imam, the iconic comedic actor who was sentenced to three months in jail for negatively portraying Islam in films, as an example of the weakness and limited capacity of Egypt's intellectual community to push back.

Ezzat, similarly, referred to the law which led to Imam's arrest, noting that it had been passed during the Mubarak era. Rather than pushing for the legislation to be abolished, Ezzat says, artists are merely keeping their fingers crossed that it will prove the exception rather than the rule.

"The law criminalises anything that could be considered 'mocking religion'... even criticism of the law will fall under this category. We're coming to the point where no criticism is allowed of anything," he added.

Writer and professor Galal Amin, author of bestselling book Whatever Happened to the Egyptians, did not reveal his presidential choice, but remained pessimistic about elections and their possible outcomes.

Although he asserted that Egypt's next head of state was likely to be better than Mubarak, he admitted that the president would never be what the revolutionaries had hoped for.

"Nobody really imagined that, after such a grand revolution, the choices available would be former regime allies or non-allies," he said.

Amin lamented the fact that many of those best-suited for the role are not contesting the race because of the corrupt electoral process.

Nevertheless, when it comes to freedom of expression and creativity, Amin is sanguine.

"Neither the nature of Egyptians, nor the revolution, nor even the global arena, will allow the new president to enact additional limitations to creativity and information flow," he explained.

For Amin, the case of Adel Imam is a singular incident, unlikely to be repeated. "I hope I'm right and won't be disappointed," he said.

Author and critic Salwa Bakr, for her part, is similarly optimistic that Egypt would not regress culturally, and that "intellectuals and creatives will not be shunned back into silence."

"If intellectuals cannot fight for their freedoms properly, then they deserve whatever they get," she said.

The challenge, from Bakr's point of view, is to organise the intellectual community at a time where there's no common umbrella movement.

"The man on the street is not in touch with intellectuals, or their efforts at safeguarding freedoms and the constitution," said Bakr. He went on to blame government and non-governmental bodies, such as the Union of Egyptian Writers, for not making an effort to bridge this chasm through education and outreach.

In terms of her choice for president, Bakr was clear: revolutionary candidate Khaled Ali. Although Ali has agreed to drop out of the race if liberal groups coalesced around another candidate, Bakr made it clear that, "If Ali drops out, I'll choose anyone unaffiliated with the old regime." Furthermore, she's happy that writers like Bahaa Taher have revealed their preferences in public and hinted to supporters their reasons for their decisions.

Taher, for his part, confirmed to Ahram Online that he would vote for leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi, not only because Sabbahi opposed Mubarak at the height of the latter's power and brutality, but also because she believes Sabbahi won't renege on his promises. "He was part of the revolution from the first day; we saw him in every protest against the Mubarak regime; he was arrested and beaten, yet never changed his mind," said Taher, author of Sunset Oasis and winner of the Arabic Booker prize.

Sabbahi is also the choice of writer Ahmed Sabry Abul-Fouh, because the leftist candidate, in his opinion, boasts the most coherent electoral platform. Sabry fears what he calls "the naïve liberals" who will vote for Abul-Fotouh. Although the latter seems liberal within the spectrum of Islamism, the writer believes Abul-Fotouh will be the Islamists' tool to impose their agenda.

Jaber Asfour, prominent writer, critic and ex-minister of culture, have no particular expectations for the upcoming elections. He sees the current political scene as turbulent, but hopes that a secular candidate wins the elections.

"I won’t tell you who I will vote for, but I won’t vote for a candidate who has religious tendencies or a military background," he said. "I hope the civil [secular] parties win the elections. Merging politics with religion would be a disaster; it would erase any political sense and turn it into ideology."

Asfour expresses certitude that Islamists will choke all society's liberties if they come to power. "The first thing they’ll do is start killing freedom of creativity and restricting women's rights. They’ll take us centuries back. We won’t be Turkey – instead we’ll be heading for something far worse than our nightmares," he said.

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