Egypt's new culture minister Asfour to foster 'cultural organisation of the state'

Mohammed Saad , Tuesday 17 Jun 2014

Renowned critic and Arabic literature professor Gaber Asfour, Egypt's new minister of culture, and PM Ibrahim Mahlab agree on vision to prioritise Egypt's cultural structure

Gaber Asfour
Gaber Asfour (Photo: Ahram Archive)

Renowned critic and professor of Arabic literature Gaber Asfour has been selected as Egypt’s new minister of culture in the first cabinet to be formed under recently inaugurated President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

The prominent 70-year-old writer told Ahram Online that he met Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab at his office on Monday, 16 June, and accepted the post.

Asfour, who has not yet disclosed any of his plans to the ministry, said he agreed with Mahlab to “implement [Asfour's] vision to develop Egypt's cultural structure [which] can be found in a recent article that [he] wrote for Al-Ahram daily newspaper.”

In the article, published on 11 June, Asfour stressed the importance of what he named the “cultural organisation of the state” especially in the age of “big national transformations.”

The author of In Defence of Enlightenment criticised in his article how the development of cultural institutions is generally perceived as a lesser priority when compared to the political and economic fields. “We have long lived under the illusion that culture comes last in any development plans,” he wrote.

Gaber Asfour, who is viewed as belonging to the "old guard" school of intellectuals, had for many years occupied leading positions in the ministry under Mubarak’s long-time minister of culture Farouk Hosni.

He headed the ministry-affiliated Supreme Council for Culture and helped establish the National Centre for Translation (NCT), which he also headed. Despite criticism, the NCT is considered one of the ministry's most successful projects of the past decade.

Asfour, who also authored Times of the Novel, is a respected figure in the Egyptian cultural sphere who always managed to avoid vehement criticism, even from his opponents – with one exception: when he accepted the ministerial post during Mubarak's last days in the cabinet reshuffle intended to placate the masses that occupied Tahrir Square demanding the autocrat's departure. 

As Asfour agreed to become minister of culture – a post which lasted nine days, from 31 January to 8 February 2011 – he faced a backlash of enormous proportions, including an article published the following day in the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper under the headline "Gaber Asfour, the Fall of an Egyptian Intellectual" with, in the body, a sentence reading "Gaber Asfour, we despise you."

He then resigned on 9 February -- two days before Mubarak's fall -- for what he then claimed were "health problems". He retracted the reason after Mubarak's ouster, however, saying in a TV interview that he had "taken office when [he] believed [the reshuffled cabinet] to be a national salvation government, but it turned out to be something else."

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