When East meets West in uncertain Egypt

Farah Montasser, Sunday 11 Dec 2011

Cultural activists and artists from the Arab world and Europe held a two-day meeting at the Goethe Institute in Cairo to discuss openings and challenges in the region's cultural scene

Former Ministers of Culture Emad Abu Ghazi and Attia D. Lawgali

In a two-day conference under the name, "Forum on Culture and Politics", organised by the Goethe-Institut and Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy, influential culture figures of the Middle East and Europe met 7 and 8 December to discuss how the Arab world can develop culturally after revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

Participants from Arab countries, Greece, Spain and Germany, along with local activists, took part in the forum focusing on three related issues: changes in the national and cultural policies of Arab countries undergoing democratic transitions; the role of cultural and civil society initiatives; and the Arab world's expectations of Europe during this period.

Former Egyptian Minister of Culture Emad Abu Ghazi and his counterpart from Libya, Atia Lawgali, opened up a dialogue with the audience discussing the cultural scene in Egypt and Libya prior to the revolution and the challenges they faced in their posts. “Censorship was the dominant factor in Egypt, monitoring the arts and culture for years, and it was my first mission to abolish censorship and sponsor anyone to present his art as he pleases,” said Abu Ghazi.

“I remember when I first became minister, I received a letter from a theatre director somewhere in Upper Egypt … I can’t remember,” he recalls. “He was asking me who to get permission from to proceed with his theatre production now that Egypt’s State Security Investigations Department was abolished, and he has no one to get the approval from … That is a catastrophe!” Abu Ghazi commented. “Culture should be independent from politics and it should not serve regimes but the people; and that is why today it is remains a challenge to change this mentality in Egypt,” he said, praising some of Egypt’s independent cultural organisations that present their work in the streets and public gardens, including Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy and El-Fan Midan.

“As a minister I approved a number of projects that open up public gardens all over Egypt for artists to build stages and perform anywhere they want, and I hope that the new minister continues with such projects to help nurture cultural activities within society,” he said.

Lawgali opened up his speech following Abu Ghazi with a sarcastic comment. “Well, I thought we had the monster of the Arab world, but apparently what we had was a turtle next to your giant dinosaur!” he said.

“Our turtle (Gaddafi) took cultural activities out of the entire country completely, and now we are building from scratch. For 40 years we never had galleries, concerts, libraries or anything of that sort,” he explained. “As a minister, I opened up all storages full of books that had been denied the public, and at extremely low prices we want to sell these books so people can be enlightened … it is a collection of 40 years of publishing,” he commented.

Since Libya didn’t have any cultural activities, authorities of the new regime find it easy to spread them now, transforming all governorate headquarters built by Gaddafi to serve as theatre groups, book clubs and concert halls, explained Lawgali.

Egypt and Tunisia have suffered from and the rise of Islamist movements seeking power after their revolutions, which endangers the culture scene. “The revolution is not over and it is our role as independent artists to help educate the public and revive our long heritage and culture like during the days of former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba,” said Habib Bel Hedi, a prominent Tunisian filmmaker.

As he recalls, “Bourguiba was in love with music and the arts, and Tunisia back then was an artistic haven… Then came Ben Ali who censored everything and only encouraged those who helped strengthen his regime.” Bel Hedi is not afraid of Islamists in Tunisia; however, he emphasised the importance to enlighten the public and fund as many cultural events as possible.

EU Delegation to Egypt Ambassador Marc Franco, known to be very active in the cultural scene of Cairo, also expressed his concerns for Egyptian culture, but said where Egyptians stand today is no worse than Europe. He said culture could only thrive when identity problems are resolved. “In Europe today, after the EU, Europeans have lost their original identities, whether they are Germans, French, Italian, etc. Only when you get back in touch with your identity can you help revive your culture.”

Lebanese artist Hanane Hajj Ali, Moroccan cultural activist Mourad Kadri and Syrian activist Rana Yazaji emphasised the role of education, which must include culture within its curriculum. Artists should devote their work to the street, to combat the remains of old regimes and seek independence, they said. “It is education in schools, in the household and on the streets that can revive culture,” commented German professor of cultural politics Wolfgang Schneider.

Despite the fact that the revolution within the Arab world is far from over, hopeful independent artists and cultural activists from the East and West believe in the importance of culture within those revolutions, and that street protest has helped bring freedom and culture back to the fore.

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