Angry Egyptian artists trap culture minister in building for hours

Mohamed Saad, Monday 3 Jun 2013

Artists call for replacement of Culture Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz in protest outside ministry in Zamalek; supporters of minister hold small counter-demonstration

Artists gather at the start of the protest (Photo: Ati Metwaly)

Dozens of artists marched from the Cairo Opera House to the Ministry of Culture in Zamalek on Sunday to demand the removal of Culture Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz. They chanted "Leave, Leave" and carried signs saying, "The minister and his decisions are illegitimate."

They were met by a number culture ministry employees chanting "Clean up, clean up, minister, we support you."

While protests and strike action have erupted against the newly appointed minister's decisions to remove the heads of important institutions, such as the Cairo Opera House and the Fine Arts Sector, some employees at the Supreme Council of Culture, the National Archive and The Egyptian Book Authority have come out in support of the minister's decisions to "clean out remnants of the old regime."

Protesters supporting the minister told Al-Ahram Arabic news website that the officials removed by the minister had been financially mismanaging their institutions.

Supporters of the minister carried printed banners - unlike the artists' hand-drawn placards - and some recited chants written on pieces of paper.

Central Security Forces were present to prevent clashes.

The protest quickly turned into a concert, with Azza Balbaa, members of the Alexandria Opera House's troupe singing, along with the Semsemeya band from Port Said and a band from Suez. Many of the ministry's employees looked out of the building to enjoy the show.

Among the supporters of this week's protests were renowned novelist Bahaa Taher, publisher Mohamed Hashem, conductor Hisham Gabr, harpist Manal Mohy El-Din, artistic advisor at the Cairo Symphony Yasser El-Serafi, ballet dancer Hany Hassan, along with a number of the opera's leaders such as former chairperson Ines Abdel-Dayem, head of the General Book Authority Ahmed Megahed and head of the Arts Academy Sameh Mahran.

Protesters surrounded the front and back exits of the ministry, keeping the minister trapped inside the building until 7:30pm when it became apparent he would not meet with the artists. There had been numerous failed attempts by the police to escort the minister from the building.

The minister left twenty minutes after the protesters had departed and went to the Media Production City for an interview with Lamees El-Hadidi on CBC.

The crisis started on Tuesday 28 May, when the Minister of Culture fired the heads of the Opera House and the Fine Arts Sector. Artists from the Opera House and Fine Arts Sector held protests outside the Opera House which eventually led to an on-stage protest at a performance of Aida and a three-day halt of performances.

On Saturday, when the Cairo Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to perform with world-renowned pianist Ramzi Yassa, a similar scene took place on stage. The artists announced a continuation of their strike and their intention to march to the culture ministry in the morning to demand his resignation.

The protesters accuse the minister of executing a Muslim Brotherhood plan to Islamise Egyptian culture and thus change the national identity to serve the interests of the Brotherhood.

The culture minister said in a statement before the protests started on Sunday that culture belongs to the people and not to a small elitist group.

He also stressed that true artists have been sidelined for years and their rights have been wasted. Everyone must come together to support creativity and enlightenment and find new spaces for these artists, he added.

The minister advised people to put the development of culture, art and creativity first and to steer clear of these "illusions of battles and defamation campaigns" which will not benefit Egypt's arts and culture scene.

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