The Question of culture in the ongoing struggle

Sayed Mahmoud Hassan, Sunday 1 Jan 2012

Is one of the consequences of the revolution going to be limited freedom of expression and creativity in Egypt? As the Islamists sideline the liberals, the ball is in the miltary's court?

White villa housing the Ministry of Culture, Zamalek, Cairo

A year has passed since the January 25 Revolution erupted. As much as the cultural scene in Egypt shows signs of hope, there is also a fog of uncertainty. The revolution continues raising slogans calling for freedom and social justice yet it finds resistance from a number of individuals and institutions.

A major paradox lies between the desire to complete the revolution and implementing its vision and plans. The dangers that are present on the ground between promises, especially in the presence of the majority represented by the forces of political Islam in the new parliament which forces its negative experiences in this area on the one hand; and the governmental institutions belonging to the state apparatus exercising its supervisory role without taking into account the variables that came in the revolution of 25 January or slogans calling for freedom of opinion and expression, on the other hand.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that the situation fluctuates while the Supreme Council of Armed Forces is trying to contain the revolution and its goals.

The whole situation reflects negatively on the position of the Ministry of Culture. The ministry has had four ministers in less than ten months without applying a real change in the ministry that represent the goals of the revolution we all sought after. Yet Emad Abu Ghazi sought to activate the role of public culture that reflects on the entire nation.  However, the minister failed to fully complete this ambition, for two reasons: because of the work under many pressures and demands of labour movements in Egypt after the revolution and because of governmental authorities, who gave priority to national security and economy at the expense of other sectors, including the culture that needs change in the restructuring and building conception of cultural policy that had prevailed in Egypt during Mubarak's rule.

Such plans are difficult to accomplish without legislation and a legal ruling. One of the independently operating movements is the Coalition of Independent Culture, formed last March, which hopes to develop a vision for a cultural policy and mechanisms for accounting and monitoring the performance of public agencies. Among its projects is El Fan Midan (Art Square) using street art to communicate with the public in open spaces. The project’s work has been successful, and covers 15 governorates across the country, funded through voluntary contributions of individuals and associations working in the cultural field.

On a less hopeful note, several human rights organizations have reported a widespread crackdown on freedom of opinion and expression in the media throughout the year. Some television shows have been disabled or pressurised to tone down criticism of the military council. Newspapers expressing criticism of the country’s military rulers have been confiscated on several occasions, including Al Fajr (The Dawn) and Sot El Umma (Voice of the Nation) and Rose Al-Youssef.

The head of the Association for Freedom of Opinion, Emad Mubarak, compares these trends to the "repressive measures in Egypt dating back to the hard-line era prior to the revolution, and even these procedures were not followed in this way in the former regime."

The situation in the publishing industry is also negative, with a number of publishing houses facing difficulties in introducing a imported publications to Egypt since April, less than three months after Mubarak’s ouster. The most prominent of these cases was the failure of Dar Al-Ain to reintroduce the novel Awlad Gabalawy (Sons of Gabalawy) by Egyptian writer Ibrahim Farghali, due to the intransigence of the control system on foreign publications at the Egyptian ports. This was a policy previously operated by the Ministry of Information; it was abolished following the ouster of Mubarak yet the practice continues.

It is true that the winds of change brought about by the revolution have affected publishing. No longer do publishers seek approval from the state police or the Ministry of Interior. Yet many in the industry continue to be fearful citing an incident that occurred at the end of November; members of state police raided Dar Kayan (House of Entity) in search of copies of Enta Meen (Who You Are) by poet Tamer Abbas. Significantly, these measures of confiscation and prohibition are without legal basis.

In a surprise move, a group of Egyptian intellectual figures submitted a complaint to the current minister of culture Shaker Abd El-Hamid regarding the refusal to publish a selection of poetry Costanteen Kafasis by Bashir Sibai allegedly because the work contains “shameless” statements. Though the minister ignored the complaint, the head of the sector Hossam Nassar insisted on referring the case to the courts seeing the censorship as pandering to rising Islamic rule and its “control over moral and religious aspects.”

It is difficult to determine with any certainty the future of censorship in the near future. Head of the Censorship Sector Sayed Khattab said in his official statement after the fall of Mubarak, "we are at the end of the era of political censorship," adding that the sector would work as a protector of intellectual property rights; a move that found support among filmmakers and the former minister of culture Emad Abu Ghazi, supporting the freedom of creativity.

Abu Ghazi also stressed however that it would be difficult to make substantive legislative changes during the transitional phase, in the absence of an elected parliament. This has not prevented independently operating movements such as the Coalition of Independent Culture from working to guarantee the liberalisation of institutions, ensuring full independence from the state.

The Supreme Council for Culture operating under Ezzeddine Choukri Fashir came to a halt after Fashir’s resignation only three months after his appointment; so did another project for the development of state awards and its nomination and voting mechanisms.

In education, too, head of the libraries sector was prosecuted for allowing a novel Birds of Amber by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid into school libraries last May. According to some teachers the novel is "reprehensible, involving sexual contexts." A similar case was filed in Beni Suef, south of Cairo, to the Office of the Attorney General, accusing the human rights activist Karam Saber author of the novel "Where is God?" describing it as an abuse to the divine and a ridicule of the sacraments.

This case is alarming for many who have fought again the reaffirmation of religious and political constrains after the uprising that ousted Mubarak. The most important objective of the revolution was freedom for the people, which includes the end of all restrictions on art and creativity. These questions have unfortunately been absent in public debate when the majority are focused exclusively on the current parliamentary elections and the political future of Egypt.

Another sign of public neglect of these questions is the way that political parties ignored culture; none of the elected parties running for office referred to the future of culture in their campaigns. Meanwhile in the programmes of the Islamic-oriented parties, including the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and Salafist parties, the vision of the future cultural scene in Egypt is evident.

While Islamist-oriented parties have kept their vision of culture in the dark, many intellectuals fear the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalists to the parliament. These fears are justified though the Islamists have not declared their final position on the issue of freedom of expression for literary and artistic works.

The historical tension between artists and Islamists was compounded by the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Parliament (1995-2005) which had a negative impact on freedom of expression. Many still remember the confiscation of the novel Waleema Le Ashab El Bahr (A Banquet for Seaweed) by Syrian writer Haidar Haider after its publication as part of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture publications. The Brotherhood were also behind the 2002 campaign waged against the Ministry of Culture to confiscate three novels that allegedly involved shameful statements and phrases offensive to the concept of the divine.

It is understandable, therefore, that intellectuals express their fears in relation to the increased presence of Islamists in the parliament posing a danger to the freedom of artistic and literary expression. In contrast, some believe that these fears are exaggerated, and are not based on any real knowledge of the role that awaits the next parliament, which they believe will be a short-lived parliament that will struggle to wrestle any real power from the military council.

With a rising wave of Salafist ideologies in mind, a number of artists, including Gamal El-Ghitani, author of the renowned novel Zaini Barakat, which deals with the tyranny of the Egyptian government, has said that Egypt may enter a dark period of its history. More fears were stoked when a Salafist leader Abdel Moneim Shahat accused the literature of Naguib Mahfouz of “promoting prostitutions and drugs.”

The rise of Islamic forces may result in a formation of a body that monitors people’s actions and behaviours. Moreover there is a danger for more repressive actions that may lead to an unprecedented tyranny even more severe than the tyranny of the Mubarak regime.

In light of these facts, we need to understand the role of the president in Egypt today. Do the results of parliamentary elections indicate that we are in a similar stage as Iran in 1979 when the Islamic Revolution brought Islamic rule?

Historian Sherif Youness, professor at the University of Helwan tries to provide an answer on his Facebook page, stressing that the heavy defeat of the liberals and their state of coma in the face of the of the Islamists is one of the most serious consequences of the election results. This feeling is linked explicitly or implicitly to the cohesiveness of the military and state administration, and therefore we can say that the regime did not fall after the fall of the Mubarak.

There is an obvious political vacuum after the January 25 Revolution, filled with question marks and fears, as well as struggles between Islamists and the liberals. In the meantime, the ball remains in the court of the Supreme Council of Army Forces.

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