Culture and National Dialogue

Nabil Abdel Fattah
Saturday 20 May 2023

The issues of culture, public and individual freedoms, education and the liberation of the public sphere are crucial for the success of the National Dialogue.

These issues, which serve as the driving forces for development, require liberating the mind from imitation to creativity, laziness to vitality as well as activating the values of work, responsibility and national belonging.

One of the biggest problems with static thinking is the reproduction of outdated perceptions about the status of official culture and its institutions from the bygone liberal and Nasserist eras in a rapidly changing world that is characterized by digital transformation, artificial intelligence and robotic assimilation. 

Since the late 1990s, official and popular culture in our world has shifted from a fine culture to consumerist and entertainment culture and from paper-based and visual-based culture to a digital culture.

This was accompanied by a growing shift to artificial intelligence and a bigger role for robots in all aspects of life and cultural production - in the arts, photography, new generative robotic language, the world of images and dynamic videos.

Meanwhile, static thinking is still focused on the culture of literature and paper books!

It is necessary to identify a number of accumulated and new problems candidly and seek possible solutions to overcome this historical dilemma.

  • The decline in the intellectual content of academic and artistic production due to the deterioration of educational curricula and weak connections with knowledge production centres compared to the Maghreb region.
  • Focusing on selected intellectual and artistic works such as Euro-American thought and production, Latin American literature, especially translations of Salah Al-Azm's works.
  • Neglecting cultural and intellectual production in Africa and emerging Asian nations, including China, South Korea, Vietnam, and India among others.
  • Neglecting culture in its broad popular sense and focusing on the narrow sense represented by official and "elitist" culture.
  • Official cultural institutions focusing on official displays in Cairo and Alexandria, while neglecting the provinces, villages and grassroots culture.
  • Low levels of competence and creative imagination in the cultural administration of leaders and employees in most cultural institutions, with limited exceptions.
  • The overlapping functions of official cultural institutions and the lack of functional differentiation in their roles, with some of them turning into publishing roles.
  • Only enlisting the ministry's leaders such as professors and assistant professors from the faculties of arts in cultural work limits understanding of culture and marginalizes the promotion of other competent and capable individuals from within the ministry's organizational structure.
  • The absence of a cultural policy that keeps pace with cultural transformations regionally and locally and takes into account generational, social, and popular cultural changes.
  • The decline of Egyptian cultural power in the region and the rise of cultural power centres in the Maghreb region and an Arab oil-producing region through funding, publishing, cultural events, and generous financial awards – all the time while Egyptian awards and their financial and symbolic value decline.
  • Restrictions on freedom of opinion, expression, publication and academic freedom.
  • Restrictions on the establishment of civil cultural associations and their activities as well as foreign funding.
  • Lack of integration and collaboration between the Ministry of Culture’s institutions and voluntary cultural initiatives and civil associations.
  • Overstaffing in the Ministry of Culture institutions and the inheritance of flaws from past historical eras.
  • Weak budget allocation for the Ministry of Culture, with over 90 percent of the budget going towards salaries and rewards for employees.
  • Marginalizing the role of the Supreme Council of Culture in setting policies and action plans for the ministry, contrary to the law, and reducing it into a council for selecting State Award nominees!  
  • Amid a decline in artistic production levels, some oil countries employ artistic groups, granting high wages for a consumerist entertainment culture. 
  • Some attempts by the ministers of culture to commercialize cultural services of the state without a vision in order to achieve profits in line with neoliberal policies. This is happening in a society where the majority of the popular, middle and lower middle classes suffer from hardships in life. These majorities need culture to drive social change and shape the attitudes of the new generations towards the ethics of work, responsibility, productivity, discipline and national belonging.
  • The marginalization of popular classes has led to their isolation from the new classes, but they have managed to impose their artistic identity on all classes, mostly through Mahraganat songs and others filled with sorrow and melancholy.

The digital culture and rapid consumerism of the new generations has led to a fast pace of consuming songs and going through favourite singers and actors and in no time.

The aforementioned issues and problems highlight some aspects of the structural crises of Egyptian culture.

These issues should have been part of the required national dialogue in order to build a cultural policy that integrates culture, freedom, education and academic research to reverse the deterioration that has taken place since the Nasserist era.

This integrated policy would develop work in the ministries of culture, education and scientific research and in unison with developing the work in the Academy of Arts.

This discussion is required in order for the national dialogue to move away from general slogans and establish specific topics for public discussion. 

The fundamental questions are: What culture we are talking about and at what time? What are the components of a modernizing policy that can be employed in development and foreign policy?

Are there solutions? Yes! I believe it is through creating a culture that confronts extremism, violence, and static imitating intellectual thought. It’s is a culture for the people!

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