Since the outbreak of the uprising back on 25 January 2011, prominent cultural figures of Egypt, including its three ministers of culture, have been holding public discussions, forums, and seminars to discuss cultural development. One of them took place last night, Wednesday 13 June: a cultural salon at the Cairo Opera House. It was one of the regular cultural salons at the small hall of the Cairo Opera House, inviting in the current minister of culture Mohamed Saber Arab, the head of the Arts Syndicate Ashraf Abdel Ghafour, the author Azza Heikal, the musician Hany Shnouda, among other writers and artists to discuss the future of culture in Egypt.
But the title, "The Future of Culture in Egypt", has become redundant to many, as one attendee put it: "We keep hearing the same thing over and over without witnessing any change in reality. Each intellectual gives his personal input on the scene today to look intelligent and sophisticated… But we get nothing more out of these meetings." Like his predecessors, the minister of culture Saber Arab criticised the state of the culture in Egypt. Addressing the audience, he said, "The problem lies in the culture of society as a whole and not the ministry as an authority and therefore it is the cause of terrible educational systems and only education would help develop Egyptian culture." He thus absolved the ministry of its responsibility for reviving culture for generations to come.
His predecessor, Shakir Abdel Hamid, at the forum on the Future of Culture at El Sakia Culturewheel back in February, had said, "The problem with culture in Egypt today lies in the search for identity," without referring to anything in particular. He kept citing solutions like those adopted by Basma El-Husseiny in the Cultural Resource but made no concrete commitments.
Prior to Arab’s address, Ashraf Abdel Ghafour, the head of the Arts Syndicate didn't want to talk about the future of Egyptian culture but the future of Egypt as a whole since "We are at a major crossroads," as he put it. Abdel Ghafour believes that censorship should be on viewership and not the artistic project – in order to help improve the general taste of the public and get rid of that, as he describes, "being commercial and dreadful on the pretext of freedom of expression."
Author Azza Heikal agreed, drawing the line between freedom of creativity and frivolity which is "disgustingly explicit," as she put it, calling on the ministry of culture to put an end to it. Heikal also stressed the role of cultural palaces across Egypt. "They should have workshops in all artistic fields and regular events to draw in people from all walks of life… The arts must be made inviting and approachable to all so that we can move forward and revive Egyptian culture."
For his part musician Hany Shnouda added, "For culture to be noticed among the ignorant public, we should bring back Egyptian art and folklore."
Attendees were so unimpressed by the discussion that the hall was almost empty within the first 30 minutes of the meeting, leaving only the media and the elderly intellectuals who are considered regulars.