Imagination first

Nevine Mossaad
Thursday 25 Aug 2022

Nevine Mosaad discusses the recommendations of a National Council for Human Rights panel on freedom of creativity and academic freedom


Last week I reviewed the panel discussion organised by the National Council for Human Rights’ (NCHR) Cultural Rights and Civil and Political Rights Committees. This week I am discussing its recommendations. 

All participants felt that, in order to promote creativity in arts or in academic research, there must be a climate encouraging the imagination to soar and produce new ideas. 

However, participants balked at the question of where we should start? Some felt  there had been positive developments beginning with the launch of the National Human Rights Strategy, going through the re-formation and activation of the Presidential Pardon Committee and the ongoing National Dialogue. What is important now is to build upon these developments through a set of partial solutions based on the old Arab adage: “What can’t be achieved fully, shouldn’t be abandoned totally.”

Others demanded detailed solutions, not partial ones. For instance, there is a problem in selecting cultural officials for the right leadership positions. In reality, the two previous points are congruous, for the detailed solutions are nothing but partial solutions. The real difference lies between these two visions and the third point of view, which believes in instant comprehensive solutions. As a favourite example, there is a question about how ready the universities are, under the current situation, to launch creative capacities and liberate minds? The previous question contains its own answer: reforming an institution is more difficult than setting it up. Consequently, it is better to found new universities with a new educational system and new educational methods. In fact, if we follow this path to the end, it would mean creating new institutions in all fields, not only in the academic field. In addition to being impossible to do, this would also be arbitrary because it involves a generalisation that ignores existing disparities among different universities and faculties. I should say, parenthetically, that the harshest criticism was directed to provincial universities, although some of these are very distinguished. 

We can divide the participants’ recommendations into three main categories: one  concerns the state, the second concerns a range of institutions including the NCHR, and the third concerns intellectuals and academics.

For state, requesting the inclusion of the freedom of creativity issue in the National Dialogue conference was recommended. This can be implemented through the Culture and Identity Committee which is a sub-committee of the Societal Dialogue Committee. 

The emphasis was on the need to strike a balance between organising public space and encouraging freedom of thought and creativity. In this context, there was a talk about resorting to a rational, sympathetic censorial code that would not curb creativity or inflict financial damages on creative people whether in the publishing field or film production along with the necessity of coordination between censorship authorities and shortening the bureaucratic cycle for needed approvals. Some preferred not to use the term censorship and suggested the term adjustment as an alternative. In my opinion, it is the substance that counts.

Among the details that came up was the role of the state in supporting the film industry, of which Egypt was a pioneer. Special attention should be paid to independent cinema, which raises issues outside the box and treats them artistically.

Child rearing took up a lot of attention. In this context, it was said that there was a need to develop aesthetic taste in the childhood stage through reviving the artistic and cultural activities in primary schools and awarding the creative people in this sphere. Supporting the art of animation by allocating a suitable budget to it – noting that increasing the budget of the Ministry of Culture and its different activities was unanimously agreed upon – was one idea. Another was setting up a committee of experts for evaluating and judging creative people’s work according to transparent criteria; devoting an animation class for the preschool stage and another after this stage in conjunction with preserving Egyptian colloquial Arabic; and protecting the intellectual rights of creative people working in animation in order to encourage them to continue in this field.

As for the recommendations directed to different institutions, participants said those institutions, namely universities and trade unions, need to be flexible in treating the freedoms issue. The idea that the heads of those institutions have become “more royal than the king” by lowering the ceiling of freedom in their own initiative, was fairly widespread. This is not new. A censor banned the broadcast of Umm Kulthum’s songs after the July Revolution and president Gamal Abdel-Nasser revoked the ban. Another censor hesitated before releasing the film A Touch of Fear and once again Nasser supported the release.

Participants asked the Supreme Council of Egyptian Universities to engage the faculties’ councils in decisions closely related to the educational process. It was requested once again of the Supreme Council to facilitate the interaction between Egyptian professors and their counterparts abroad for the benefit of academic research, thus enhancing Egypt’s soft power. 

Participants asked the NCHR to set up a freedom of expression watchdog in order to defend creative people and confront the attempt to use religious hesba laws to target them, issuing a specialised periodical on human rights issues and organising several symposia discussing freedom of creativity in its broad sense. 

As for the intellectual and academic community itself, the recommendation was that it should side with its members in the face of smear and character assassination campaigns they fall victim to when they dare to take the initiative to express new ideas or create innovative work. 

* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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