Mr Minister, what are you talking about?

Khaled Fahmy , Sunday 23 Jun 2013

Culture ministers should promote freedom of thought, speech and academic research, not censorship, closure and ignorance. But then in Egypt, avarice and ineptitude reigns from the top

One is at a loss as to how to make sense of the most recent policies of the president, the government, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the latest gubernatorial reshuffle, I can understand that President Morsi would prefer to adopt the policies of the toppled president in designating border governorates to officials from the police and the army, given that the Brotherhood's constitution had failed to establish a new rule that would allow the people to elect their governors, rather than them being assigned by the executive power.

And I can understand that the president would turn down advice given to him by some of his aides to give a few governorates to non-Islamist figures in an attempt to curb people's anger towards the Brotherhood’s avaricious control of the state.  

And I also understand that the president would instead accept the advice some of the extremists at the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood and that he would extend an arm to Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, rather than any of the liberal parties, by giving it a gubernatorial position here or there.

But what I don’t understand is why give Luxor to a member of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, which had carried out the Luxor massacre in 1997. For the president could have as easily rewarded Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya by giving them Menoufiya, for example, or any other governorate. But by insisting on granting Luxor to Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, the presidency is sending a clear message to tourists that visiting Luxor carries with it the possibility of being slaughtered. But it seems that stubbornness and ineptitude are hallmarks of the Brotherhood.

At the same time, I am shocked at the decisions of the minister of culture and his maverick actions. The minister inaugurated his term in office by firing some of the best and most qualified top echelons in the ministry, while leaving the hotbeds of corruption to fester as before. Thus, I find his call for the elimination of corruption invalid.

His latest decision was filing a criminal investigation last Monday, that carried No 1299 of 2013, claiming that "A computer with internet connection has been discovered at the National Archives. On investigating the matter further, this computer was discovered to contain thousands of scanned photographs of documents, in a clear breach of the security of the archives and of national security."

Let us stop for a minute to decipher this nonsense. The minister of culture is alarmed by a computer within the premises of the National Archives that is connected to the Internet? Of course the issue is not related to the Internet connection as much as it related to the contents of the computer. The minister suspects that the contents of the National Archives would be leaked and exposed to the world by proxy of this particular device, which the security apparatus were able to restore, after all the data on it had been erased on 6 June, according to the filed report.

Your excellency, what are you on? Don't you realise that the National Archives must make its documents available and publish them to the public? Don't you realise that national archives institutions across the globe do so routinely and as a matter of course? Don't you realise that the National Archives is not the secret archive of the General Intelligence Services, which should enjoy a degree of secrecy; it is rather the nation's archive to which the public should have free access?

And what are these documents that you claim to be protecting through your ridiculous complaint? Would publishing the endowment deed of Sultan Qalaqun threaten national security? Will publishing correspondences of the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman empire to his viceroy in Egypt in 1718 threaten Egypt-Turkey relations? Would publishing Khedive Ismail’s invitation to Egypt’s Grand Rabbi to attend festivities commemorating the annual Nile floods affect Egypt's relationship with Israel? Would publishing the divorce deed of Om-El-Kheir, which dates back to 1580, threaten the pillars of the Egyptian family? Mr Minister, do you have any idea what you are talking about?

And if this was your stance towards knowledge and information and culture in general, what have you left for the security agencies? The job of these agencies worldwide is blocking access and being sceptical about the intentions of scientific research.

As a minister of culture, by contrast, you are expected to speak out for freedom of thought, free speech, and academic freedom, and to resist the calls for censorship and closure. Yet all you did was to submit this peculiar report that illustrates how deeply ingrained this  security mindset is in you. As a minister of culture, you should have instead taken a firm stand against the numerous prison sentences that are being handed out to writers, teachers and artists on charges of blasphemy. You should have stood by someone like Mona Prince, whose academic freedom has been attacked when she was brought in front of a university disciplinary hearing charging her with  blasphemy.

It would have been more worth your while to open the National Archives to the public, not to appoint as director someone whose first measure in the job was to tighten security procedures, making life for researchers even more difficult than it already was.

Societies progress not merely by supporting fields such as medicine, engineering, chemistry and physics; they also develop through endorsing arts and literature. The ministry of culture should create the necessary open environment to enable music and dance and literature and fine art and scientific research to flourish. Sadly, our culture minister’s actions indicate that this regime is deeply suspicious of culture and intellectuals.

Appointing a member of a terrorist group as governor for Luxor is the other side of appointing a culture minister that walks in Goebbels’ footsteps. These twin appointments illuminate the importance of opposing these new cultural policies and working hard to reverse them.

The issue currently on the table is not merely a question of identity. What is at stake now is not only the right to free speech but also the very right to exist. 

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