Egypt's artists brace for Islamist rule

Wael Eskandar with contributions by Menna Taher and Ati Metwaly, Monday 5 Dec 2011

As Islamists make a strong initial showing in Egypt's parliamentary polls, some artists fear a clampdown on their freedom of expression while others believe artists must reconnect with the Islamists' base

Coalition for Independent Culture
Coalition for Independent Culture during their Tahrir sit-in this November

In recent history, Islamist figures have clashed with artists on numerous occasions. The most recent incident being when Salafist leader and parliamentary candidate Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat accused the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz of “inciting promiscuity, prostitution and atheism" in his books.”

Many had hoped the January 25 Revolution would bring an end to censorship, yet preliminary results showing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party leading and the Salafist Nour Party competing for second place, have raised concerns over a different kind of censorship.

However, the head of the actors’ syndicate, Ashraf Abdel-Ghafour, told Masry Al-Youm that “No artists will leave Egypt,” to dispel rumours that artists would leave the country if Islamists came to power.

Islam and the arts

During the Mubarak era Egyptian courts were flooded with 'Hesba' lawsuits targeting writers, film makers and poets. Hesba lawsuits can be filed by anyone if they believe God has been insulted. The first case after the 25 January Revolution was filed on 12 April 2011 against the book “Where is Allah” by Karam Saber, released in November 2010. The book was sent to the committee of senior scholars at Al-Azhar Al-Sharif for content assessment.

Hesba lawsuits have continued after the revolution and there is reason to believe examining art work through an Islamic moral lens could be formalised. In a recent interview on Al-Qahira Al-Youm, El-Shahat said, “It’s not your right” to decide if a work of art is halal or haram (right or wrong), and implied all art should be screened by senior Al-Azhar scholars, which would mean stricter censorship laws.

Islamist figures have used the time of the Islamic Empire to gauge what is allowed and what is not. Hanaa Abd El-Fattah, theatre director and professor of theatrical arts argues that “In the first centuries after Higra (Migration), theatre and acting didn't exist in the Islamic Empire except for some spontaneous semi-theatrical street performances, while professional theatre as an art form was restricted because it was thought it encouraged the adoption of another God but Allah. Society at that time was atheistic and religious figures wanted to strengthen the idea of the sole God.”

Professor Nagy Shaker of the fine art department at Helwan University in Zamalek says, “Things started changing at the fine art department in the seventies. Before that we used to draw naked models. Some students now actually refuse to draw even fully clothed models and it would be a catastrophe if this mindset increased.”

Artists have had to continually fight battles against censorship and oppressive regimes, perhaps in some art forms more than others. This time is no exception.

Adham Hafez, choreographer, performer, and a director of HaRaKa Dance Development and Research, believes contemporary art in Egypt has always been a field of struggle and for that reason he believes artists “will continue the struggle, whatever the general context around them is.”

“I would battle any oppressive regime,” says young film director Ahmed Abdalla, “whether it’s Mubarak's regime, SCAF, or the Muslim Brotherhood, if they decide to oppress the people.”

Islamist rule and the man on the street

Abd El-Fattah does not believe theatre in its true form will ever exist under an Islamist regime. “If the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafists opened a theatre or promoted acting, it would only be to propagandise their beliefs. It would never reflect Egyptian society,” he believes.

“Islam has always been an obstacle to theatrical performance…All we have today is taken from Europe, not an identity of our own,” he says.

Various art forms would be threatened by extreme interpretations of Islam, ranging from acting and dancing to sculpting and music. 

Mona Rafla, a soprano and Cairo Opera Company executive, fears artists could be outnumbered and marginalised. “We are 27 singers in a society of 85 million,” she says.

“The opera’s management has allegedly received threats regarding its repertoire. The greatest threat is in ‘selective policies’ that many Islamist figures promote.”

Despite numerous fears, many artists believe the real battle is on the street not with religious leaders.

Basma El-Husseiny, founder and managing director of Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy says, “It is not a matter of being worried about official censorship; the society itself already introduces its own censorship.”

The disconnection between artists and the general public is also noted by Mohamed Abla, painter and head of the Cairo Atelier. “Many artists and intellectuals have done nothing to reach out to society and therefore the majority of Egyptians do not recognise them. It is a wakeup call,” says Abla.

In order to move forward, some think reaching out to the people is more important than fighting conservative religious leaders.

“Many artists and intellectuals are consumed fighting people such as Abdel Moneim El-Shahat, but we should be reaching out to the people who voted for him,” says El-Husseiny.

Ines Abdel Dayem, director of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra agrees. “We must come together and think about how to reach people, while building our strength. We are too dispersed, each enclosed in his own art work, his own field. We need to unite and act together while connecting with society.”

This is not just a battle for artists, but for everyone in society. Although artists will be affected most by policies that promote censorship and hinder creativity, there is hope that people will move to challenge some of these ideas.

“Egyptians will never abandon music and dance,” says theatre director and choreographer, Tamer Fathy.  “Artists and intellectuals should not be worried. If Islamists try to impose limitations on the arts, the whole society will be affected, not only the layer representing fine arts.”

Arts and the revolution

Perhaps the hopes and fears of artists are best summed up by Nehad Selaiha, professor of theatrical arts and theatre critic.

“I would have no fears of Islamists coming to power if they pledged to respect the diversified cultural heritage of Egypt; critical thinking in education and the spirit of inquiry from the earliest stages; international human rights law and civil liberties; the arts and freedom of creativity; freedom of thought, expression and dissent in the media and other public forums and venues;  the privacy of individuals and their chosen modes of life; the individual’s right to choose his/her faith, regardless of the one he/she was born into and his/her sexual identity, regardless of traditional social and biological classifications,” says Selaiha.

These hopes have long been held by artists in Egypt. The history of past Egyptian and Islamists regimes indicate it would be difficult to achieve those hopes any time soon.

“I know very well that Islamists, whether Salafists or from the Brotherhood, will not be willing to concede even a fraction of my hopes,” says Selaiha.

With results of the first round of parliamentary elections pointing to an Islamist majority in parliament, the outlook looks bleak. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the revolution has not delivered the hopes and dreams of Egypt’s artistic communities, and the fight for artist freedom is going to be long and hard.

“But I still dream,” says Selaiha. “I dream that Egyptians will someday, in the distant future, achieve them, though I will not be around to enjoy them.”

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