From opposing culture minister to fighting for Egypt's 'identity'

Ati Metwaly, Friday 14 Jun 2013

Ongoing protests against culture minister have become a 'fight for Egypt's cultural soul and national identity'

Ministry of Culture
Filmakers, artists and intellects sit-in at the Ministry of Culture calling for the dismissal of the Minister of Culture(Photo: Ati Metwally)

Tuesday's attack on protesters at the culture ministry gave the ongoing sit-in a completely new goal. What had begun as a protest against the culture minister became a nationwide fight for Egypt's identity, threatened, according to opposing intellectuals, by Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Protesters say Culture Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz has an "insufficient artistic and professional profile" for the job and his decisions reflect the government's plan to "Brotherhoodise" Egyptian culture.

When Ahram Online visited the sit-in in the heart of Zamalek, protesters pointed to the minister's pro-Brotherhood inclinations as proof of his agenda to "destroy Egypt's cultural identity." 

Since his appointment by President Morsi, Abdel-Aziz has placed several Freedom and Justice Party members on the ministerial payroll. Moreover, the recent appointment of Brotherhood leading figure Khaled Fahmy, who states openly that he supports the Brotherhood's policies, as head of the National Library and Archives, only proves what artists already feared.

During his third week in the office, Abdel-Aziz fired the heads of the Cairo Opera House, Fine Arts Sector and General Egyptian Book Organisation. On 28 May, artists held protests outside the Cairo Opera House, which led to an on-stage strike the same evening at a performance of Aida, and artists announced a three-day halt to performances.

On 1 June, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra announced a continuation of their strike. The opera soon resumed its activities, but discontent was already spreading like wildfire, prompting many intellectuals to submit their resignations from the state culture bodies.

Among them was Bahaa Taher, renowned author and winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008, who resigned from the Supreme Council of Culture in protest at the minister's "dismissal of many valuable, highly educated and accomplished artists and intellectuals from leading positions in Egypt's cultural scene." Taher added that Abdel-Aziz was following a clear strategy to destroy Egyptian arts and culture.

As the protests escalated and the minister remained unresponsive to protests, artists stormed the Ministry of Culture on 5 June and prevented Abdel-Aziz from entering the building.

That evening dozens of artists from the Cairo Opera House joined the protest at the ministry in their first participation in any kind of protest since January 2011.

In an interview with Al Masry Al Youm newspaper two weeks ago Abdel-Aziz said, "Culture has long been monopolised by one group of people [largely leftists] who exclude anyone else."

He added that he was on a mission to "purge the state's cultural institutions of deep-rooted corruption."

For the past week, artists including painter Mohamed Abla, film producer Mohamed El-Abd, publisher Mohamed Hashem, actors Mahmoud Kabil and Nabil El-Helfawy have occupied the ministry. They were joined by prominent literary figures such as Bahaa Taher and Sonallah Ibrahim. Dozens of other artists, filmmakers, playwrights, actors, musicians have joined them.

Every evening artistic events have taken place on the street outside the ministry. The events have included performances by Eskenderella, musicians Rami Essam, Eman Bahr Darwish, Azza Balbaa, dancers from the Cairo Opera Ballet Company (performing independently) which on 10 June attracted an especially large audience. A video of their performance of Zorba went viral online.

The 11 June attack on the sit-in by Muslim Brotherhood supporters placed the protest on a completely new level. Even before the attack, a number of young people had been alarmed by information circulating on social media that Islamists would attempt to disperse the sit-in. Following the attack, which injured three Central Security Forces soldiers, the artists were immediately joined by members of political groups, such as Tayar El-Shaabi of the Popular Current, not directly linked to the cultural scene.

"After the Islamists' attack, it is no longer about the culture minister, our opposition is directed at the regime he represents and supports," Mahmoud Awad, a director who spends every night at the ministry, told Ahram Online. He added that artists would not back off until the whole regime is removed.

Playwright Rasha Abdel-Moneim, who spends many hours at the ministry, said, "When we stormed into the ministry building, it was not only a move against the minister, but against a person who clearly wishes to implement Islamic thought - taken from the Muslim Brotherhood perspective - on Egyptian culture."

"[Abdel-Aziz] wants to destroy the Egyptian identity," Abdel-Moneim told Ahram Online. "Today we are supported by hundreds of people representing different political currents opposed to the Islamists. We are also backed by passers-by, people from different walks of life and generations who join us in the evenings. After the Islamists' attack they come in even greater numbers. This place have become a heart of the struggle for Egypt's identity. It's no longer about a minister or an institution." 

Harpist Manal Mohie El-Din, who regularly joins the sit-in, said that "one is either with Egypt or the Brotherhood. There are no differences between people now; we are all united against the Islamists. Today I will support strongly absolutely anyone who is against the Islamists."

Egypt's identity under threat

For many people, Egypt's identity is defined by thousands of years of cultural history, incorporating Ancient Egyptian, Islamic and Coptic heritage. In many protests, artists have carried photos of Egyptian cultural icons from the 1960s, to remind everybody of the country's cultural wealth.

Since the 11 June attack, the ministry is no longer home to artists and intellectuals only. It is continuously visited by figures from the political scene who join roundtable discussions, while many culture supporters add numbers to the evening crowds in front of the building.

On 12 June, liberal former MP Amr Hamzawy visited the ministry.

On 13 June, Tahani El-Gebali, vice president of the Supreme Constitutional Court, joined intellectuals inside the building and made a speech on the need to protect Egyptian culture.

"Our culture is being destroyed by Islamist bulldozers," El-Gebali argued. "We are not just any country. We have a history and culture of 7000 years. With this accumulated identity, we now need to live in modernity, in a modern constitutional system; we need to continue developing and create a modern republic. We must not go backwards."

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