Artists speak out on appointment of new Minister of Culture

Menna Taher and Ati Metwaly, Wednesday 23 Feb 2011

In spite of El Sawy’s clear statement to Ahram Online (17 Feb) that he is not interested in the Ministry of Culture, four days later he has accepted the post, a fact which has spurred some opposition from Egyptian artists

Mohamed El Sawy
Mohamed El Sawy (photo by Sherif Sonbol)

Over the past few years the activities in El Sawy Culturewheel (El Sakia), situated under the 25th of July bridge, have attracted thousands of young Egyptians.

El Sakia has been the stage for many aspiring musicians and other artists and the popularity of the venue grew.  Mohamed El Sawy, the creator of the centre, owner and manager, became one of the most popular individuals active in the art scene in Cairo.

However, the centre did struggle with a number of flaws and many artists have expressed their concerns about El Sakia's general policies.

Those concerns did not surface strongly enough for several reasons. One of them being the presence of other outlets which managed to counter-balance the shortcomings at El Sakia by meeting the different expectations of artists.

Another, and possibly more important reason why El Sakia’s defects were not pointed out loud enough, is because its creator’s role was limited to inside the walls of the centre.

Today, Mohamed El Sawy became the Minister of Culture and accordingly his policies are expected to reach beyond El Sawy Culturewheel, and their impact will possibly spread towards the whole art and culture scene in Egypt.

Based on El Sawy’s history within the centre, artists have expressed their great concerns – if not total rejection – of the choice of El Sawy to head the cultural field here in Egypt.

Hoda Wasfy, the director of the Hanaguer theatre is concerned that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces are not considering people’s demands and she is displeased with the whole cabinet.

However, she believes this is an interim period and all will change when the elections take place in September. “They should let people vote with their identity number so everyone will be able to vote,” she asserts.

As for Sawy, she stresses that many artists have faced problems with their freedom to perform.  “I’m sure that he is a good person,” she maintains, “but only in the context of running El Sakia. Heading the ministry requires a lot more depth in cultural life."


On 21 February, not even a day after the appointment was announced, more than a hundred artists gathered in downtown Cairo to discuss their discontent with the appointment.

The discussion was moderated by jazz musician and Grammy award winner Fathy Salama. He formulated a list of six reasons why he is against the appointment and questioned the artistic value and calibre of artists chosen to perform at El Sakia.

Some artists raised the matter of the censorship that El Sawy uses extensively in his venue, while others opposed the fact that he is a businessman serving as a minister.

Others who have worked at El Sawy Culturewheel enumerated their experiences, and alleged that El Sawy is a close ally of the old regime.

Mohamed Hassane, a scriptwriter underlined the fact that El Sawy exercised excessive control over many artistic productions presented at the centre.

Independent filmmaker Mohamed Hammad told Ahram Online that El Sawy refused to screen two of his short movies,  El Geneh El Khames (The fifth pound), which he wrote and Central (Call Centre), which he directed.

“El Sawy said that the film did not follow the guidelines of the institute. Central was screened at the Alexandria film festival, which is held by the ministry, not without problems of course, but it was screened nonetheless,” he said.

“I am against having a minister of culture in the first place and think that the Supreme Council of Culture should take up the role,” Hammad continued.  

Filmmaker Mohamed Khan also stressed the need for freedom of expression – demanding the complete removal of censorship – and believes that El Sawy will not take any steps towards this.

In his conversation with Ahram Online, Khan recalled El Sawy censoring one of the movies during the Short Film Festival, held at El Sakia in which Khan was one of the jury members.

The folk singer Donia Massoud said that in 2004 she held a performance there and was told to stop the audience dancing. She was also called the night before by someone working at El Sakia asking her what she was going to wear for the performance and warning her that performers must follow a modest dress code. 

In the conversations with Ahram Online, artists gave several examples of strict censorship and conservative ideologies reinforced in El Sawy Culturewheel and obviously this is one of the many concerns artists have in the choice of El Sawy for the ministerial post.

More questions, more concerns

An important question that needs to be raised is related to El Sawy’s censorship-like concerns which were limited to his centre and the large arts and culture arena which he now represents.

Were his policies affected by the old regime? Were they a testament to his close links with the regime, as many artists suspect, including the claims that El Sawy had a very close business relationship with Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the former president. What will be his role in the culture of new Egypt?

Amr Salah from Eftekasat (an Egyptian band), hopes to see a clear division between Mohamed El Sawy as head of El Sakia and El Sawy as Minister.

“Just like any Minister of Culture, he should not inflict his personal views onto the position which he represents,” Salah told Ahram Online. “The administration must be responsive to people's - artists - needs and demands. For El Sawy to be successful in his ministry, he must listen to the artists and respond to their claims.”

Magd El Seguini, a visual artist, agrees saying that, “The important thing is not to have any restraints on creativity. The ministry should encourage artistic production, revive the cinema and book publication. Culture should get to people in a simple way.”

However, El Seguini also supports El Sawy as minister. “El Sawy is a good choice. He has brought culture to the Egyptian community and his father was the minister of culture so he's been raised with the right background," he declares.

"He has a massive challenge in front of him because Farouk Hosny, (the former minister of culture) has left cultural life in an extremely poor condition and El Sawy needs artists and intellectuals to help him out,” El Seguini told Ahram Online.

The situation of today’s arts and cultural scene in Egypt is definitely a great challenge but  Hamdy Reda, photographer and owner of Artellewa centre, does not think that El Sawy is up to it.

“El Sawy is not qualified enough to be the minister. He is a businessman,” Reda told Ahram Online and stressed the worrying amount of bureaucracy at El Sawy Culturewheel.

Many artists have questioned the concept of the validity of “hereditary skills”. Without going into analysis of Abdel Moneim El Sawy’s (Mohamed’s father) years at the ministry, let’s not forget that one of the many issues which led to the Egyptian revolution of 25 January was the possibility of hereditary trends behind the “Egyptian throne”, occupied by Hosni Mubarak for three decades, and the possibility of it being inherited by his son Gamal.

Artists have continued their protests and on 22 February they held anti-El Sawy banners in Tahrir square.

They also plan to gather on Sunday, 27 February in front of the Ministry of Culture, to express their disappointment at the appointment of El Sawy and call for the removal of the whole cabinet.

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