Egypt's culture sector fragmented on current political crisis

Rowan El Shimi, Thursday 22 Aug 2013

A statement intends to speak for Egypt's culture sector regarding Morsi's ouster and current Brotherhood 'terrorism' at a conference, but Ahram Online hears differing views

Artists, intellectuals and media at the press conference in Supreme Council of Culture, 20 August 2013. (Photo: Rowan El Shimi)

Culture Minister Mohamed Saber Arab and several artists and intellectuals held a press conference mostly for the benefit of foreign media on Tuesday 20 August at the Supreme Council of Culture to clarify the stance of Egyptian artists on the current political impasse and violence in the country.

Ahram Online interviews reveal, however, that the views put out at the conference and listed in their statement do not reflect those of all artists and intellectuals on the scene.

Starting with a minute of silence for those who have died in recent clashes, Culture Minister Arab explained that they would be discussing the relation between what is politically happening in Egypt on the ground, with the cultural, social and humanitarian aspects of the conflict.

Following the dispersal by the government of the weeks-long sit-ins at Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda Squares on 14 August that were calling for the reinstatement of ousted Islamist president Morsi and the Brotherhood regime, Brotherhood protesters and their allies took to the streets around the country. During this time, churches, police and fire stations were burned and clashes abounded in many neighbourhoods and the state has imposed a curfew and checkpoints.

Among the many complaints against the Brotherhood that prompted massive protests to oust Morsi on 30 June were the artists' voices who decried the Islamist's attempt to "Brotherhoodise" the culture sector.

"When the country's cultural identity is at stake, and the previous leadership is declaring what is religiously acceptable or not acceptable in arts, this is an issue affecting the Egyptian mind and identity," the minister said during the 20 August conference, adding that when more than 30 million people took to the streets demanding the ouster of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the army had to adhere to people's demands and remove the Muslim Brotherhood regime.     

Earlier, on 5 August, a large group of artists and intellectuals including renowned novelists Bahaa Taher and Sonallah Ibrahim among dozens of others, released a statement  calling the Muslim Brotherhood a non-nationalist organisation, charging it used to stand with the British against the nationalist movement, which rose to oust the British rulers and today resort to terrorism.

This bold declaration that the Brotherhood uses terrorism hit a nerve with many, but artists say that the Brotherhood's recent bout of violence only proves their statement true.

"It is a good initiative that the culture ministry decided to hold this press conference, because it is not just a political issue, but a cultural one," Ahmad Abdalla, independent filmmaker best known for his award-winning film Microphone and critically acclaimed Heliopolis told Ahram Online. "It is a question of identity. However, artists and intellectuals participating in this conference used the same language that the local media uses but targeting the West. I believe that at this moment, the ministry should be more concerned with working on opening the cultural palaces that are not working all around the country and give the opportunity to address this question of identity."

The Conference

During the conference, the minister urged international media present in the hall to read the scene on Egyptian streets, which is carrying different truths than what is presented in their media portals.

Foreign and local media scopes in Egypt narrate two very different stories.

The press conference retold the local media's perspective, describing the sit-in as armed, and labelling the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, burning churches, schools, governmental buildings, as well as citizens' shops and cars.

"The problem is they [referring to the people who planned the press conference] are doing this because the [foreign] media's coverage is so biased towards the Muslim Brotherhood," says theatre director behind Tahrir Monologues and the Bussy Project Sondos Shabayek, in her mid-twenties to Ahram Online in response to the rhetoric chosen by the artists at the conference. "On the other hand when you say CNN is biased, you can't exactly say ONTV [a local privately owned television channel] is doing a good job covering, that's ridiculous."

Shabayek explained that however now foreign media is more balanced than at the start. Regarding the local media, "Whatever they report they do through a frame of reference that the Muslim Brotherhood are terrorists; they do have strong relations with armed organisations and jihadist groups, but they are trying to make us lump them altogether," which insults people's intelligence.

The press conference's panel included writer and former member of parliament Amr El-Shobaky, who asserted that change comes from reforms of state institutions and that Egypt will never be a failed state that has the military and state institutions, which Egyptians have been building since 1805, dismantled.

Poet Ahmed Abdel-Moaty Hegazy referred to the Brotherhood's assassinations of cultural figures in the past, along with 1992 assassination by the radical Islamist group, Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya of writer and human rights activitst Farag Fouda,and the failed 1994 attempt to assassinate Nobel Prize for Literature winner Naguib Mahfouz. Hegazy also mentioned Quranic thinker and one of the leading liberal theologians in Islam, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, who, in early 1990s, based on pressures by Islamic forces against him, was declared an apostate and as such could not remain married to his wife.

"We need to defend culture because they know nothing of freedom of expression and creativity and democracy," Hegazy confirmed.

Actress Elham Shahin, who faced a ferocious attack from Islamist clerics and media channels in 2012 spoke of her defamation lawsuit against Abdallah Badr and the religious channel, Hafez, and was vindicated with a court order to shut it down.

"The more they tried to bribe me and threaten me, the more I went on television and spoke to the media," she said. "I was the first trigger of the movement against the Brotherhood's rule," she added accusing them of hating Egypt and being against the police, the army and the judiciary. 

"They're not Egyptian, they're not Muslims, they are pretending to be," she asserted.

The culture minister added that Egyptians stand with the military against "these terrorists" and that "the human rights are respected in Egypt."

"Egypt never has and has not yet to respect human rights," Ganzeer, a young popular visual artists who has been involved in several graffiti projects told Ahram Online. "Also, in the statement, the minister places a condition on respecting human rights. That the state will only respect human rights if protests and sit-ins are peaceful. That statement is a very sad one to hear from a government official. Human rights are not conditional. You either respect them or you don't. It's apparent by that statement that the Egyptian government has made a conscious decision not to."

Independent young visual artist Ramy Dozy comments: "To me, the term 'terrorism' is an abstract concept. I have known it since I was 12 years old, since the 1990s events in Upper Egypt. And the word itself is vague and undefined, and it is a weapon used to advance personal interests and justifying violence."

Morsi's ouster and Rabaa's dispersal

"What I expected to happen was that after Tamarod [Rebel] campaign gathered their millions of signatures [that called for early presidential elections –in effect a vote of no confidence from the people], these documents would be used in a court of law to unseat the president and draw up early elections," Ganzeer said.

"The kidnapping of an elected president by the Armed Forces, no matter how much I disagree with that president, is not something that anyone should condone," he asserted commenting that even Mubarak was not kidnapped to an undisclosed location but is standing trial.

Ganzeer, like many of the younger generation in Egypt was active in the movement calling to end military rule in the country after the first 18 days of uprising ousted Mubarak and left the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) in charge of running the country in the transitional period.

Khaled Hafez, an established visual artist told Ahram Online that he is completely happy with the removal of Morsi, and believes the army should have intervened even earlier, pointing to two particular moments: during November 2012 when Morsi issued the constitutional declaration that put his decrees out of the reach of judicial review, and during the conference on Syria's situation in Cairo Stadium where the president was present while hate speech against Shias and other factions were aired publicly and he did nothing to stop it.

"My happiness is incomplete because of the innocent people who died, many of whom were not carrying arms but were just moving in a demonstration," Hafez said stressing that even though there could have been more peaceful ways to disperse these sit-ins that he still stands by the military and opposition's roadmap since "right now we [seculars, leftists and those who don't support Morsi] cannot be divided."

Filmmaker Abdalla was concerned about the sit-in and believed it needed to be dispersed since several witnesses asserted it was an armed sit-in, which is not acceptable, especially in a residential area.

"However, the way it was dispersed was not right," Abdalla said wishing the sit-in at Rabaa Al-Adawiya would have been dispersed in several phases, such as limiting the occupied space of the sit-in, or allowing them to disperse themselves. "Out of the numbers that died in total, I doubt all of them were armed," he added.

Completely against violent dispersals of any sit-ins Ganzeer says the large-scale violence only broke out upon the crackdown on the protesters.

"In terms of some of the incitement to violence that publicly took place on the stages of the sit-in, those could have easily been dealt with in a legal capacity. Charges could have been brought against them and prosecution could have summoned them. If they faced resistance, an appropriate amount of force could have been used. Large-scale massacres, however, are not okay."

What the future holds

Though it is very clear during the 20 August conference that artists and intellectuals reject that future of Egypt gives any political or social ground to the Muslim Brotherhood, they concentrated on clarifying their stance with regard to the current events but did not point to concrete solutions or how the country can move forward.

Ahram Online asked the independent artists to provide their thoughts about the shape that future is expected to take.

"We are fighting an ideology - not people," Shabayek asserted. "This sets us back 60 years, but they [Brotherhood] ruined themselves, politically-speaking, from their year in office," she said, critiquing their rule.

"I wish that an initiative would come out for peace and reconciliation, so we can start rebuilding the bridges in society and stop alienating and dehumanising each other," she said, admitting that it is an idealistic hope.

Dozy echoed Shabayek's statement saying the solution would be "love and reconciliation."

Hafez believes that when the Brotherhood's leadership are all standing trial and not allowed to be part of politics, the Brotherhood's new educated and aware generation would take over the organisation, focusing on social work.

"There will eventually be an organised radical group stemming from this violence, like history shows us," he said. "They will work underground but under surveillance from the security forces."

Ganzeer affirms the armed forces are looking to create a sense of insecurity in the country by announcing a war on terror to ensure getting wide backing to run the country and have one of their men win the next elections.

However, Ganzeer stressed that there is a segment which will not back down on the revolution's demands, nor give into emergency law, and will insist that the military not get involved in politics and governing.

"Military rule in Egypt will end, and it'll be a topic many artists will deal with, myself included, for a very, very long time," he asserted.

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