Egyptian culture: Back to dynamism

09-12-2015 02:48 PM

Nasser Sobhy





Cultural diversity programme at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina




No two persons can disagree that what is so terrifying about terrorism is that it strikes suddenly, when and where least expected. Sadly, the world has reached the point where no place on earth can claim itself safe, immune to terrorist attacks. The overwhelming majority of terrorist acts in our modern times have been conducted with the backing of Islamic thought and rationale. There is a unanimous view that acts of terrorism have their roots in, more than anything else, thoughts and concepts that justify them, lend them rationality, and warrant them.

With this in mind, a recent conference at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) in Alexandria on “Suggestions for a Framework of a National Cultural Policy in Egypt” started its activities with observing a moment of silence in honour of the victims of terrorism around the world.


BA-EU programme

The four-day conference marked the culmination of the BA’s Support for Cultural Diversity and Creativity in Egypt programme. The programme, which began two years ago in November 2013, was a joint project between the BA and the European Union (EU). The programme was developed in compliance with the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the protection and promotion of the diversity of cultural expression, to which both Egypt and the EU are committed.

Amira Medhat Reyad, deputy member of the office of the International Cooperation Ministry, thanked the BA, the EU and all responsible for the project which, she said, had disclosed the cultural reality of Egypt and reviewed the most important challenges, as well as the steps that should be taken in the future to guard and promote the country’s cultural uniqueness.

Participating in the conference were Ismail Serageldin, Director of the BA; Haytham al-Haj on behalf of Culture Minister Helmy al-Namnam; and Giuseppe Vasques, cultural attaché at the EU Delegation to Egypt on behalf of Ambassador James Moran, head of the EU Delegation. A large and diversified number of public figures, artists, ministry officials and intellectuals, as well as representatives from national and international cultural bodies, also participated in the event. They included Assistant Secretary-General of the Arab League Badr al-Din al-Alayly, and Amira Medhat Reyad on behalf of International Cooperation Minister Sahar Nasr.


Four pillars

In the opening address to the conference, Dr Serageldin stressed that diversity and creativity were important means of helping to defuse extremism, violence and terrorism. He condemned recent tragic terrorist attacks, confirming that Egypt stands wholeheartedly with all the nations of the world in the face of extremism.

Dr Serageldin added that the human community progressed through creativity, and that the diversity of views, ideas and ways of thinking reflected the huge potential for creativity in society. This  he upheld as crucial to social development. He also noted that creativity was associated with what he referred to as “knowledge accumulation”. Advanced human societies, Dr Serageldin said, eagerly embraced memories of creativity in their depths, building on what had been achieved and aspiring to a better future. He further upheld systematic change, based on critical thinking, as another message embodied in the project. Emphasising the vitality and diversity of Egyptian culture, Dr Serageldin referred to the various projects and initiatives undertaken by the BA, with the aim of guarding and enhancing cultural diversity, the current project being one of them.

“This project inspired us, as did our continuing cultural projects, to plan a future strategy built on the following pillars,” Dr Serageldin explained. “First, reaching out to gifted, creative youth; second, expanding the ‘Memory of Modern Egypt’ project to cover the period between 1981 and 2014; third, promoting initiatives targeting cultural diversity and creativity; and fourth, expanding the publication of books on tolerant Arabic and Islamic heritage.”

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Egyptian cultural diversity

Dr al-Haj applauded the project, which he described as a step towards building the future. He stressed that diversity was what distinguished the unique identity of Egypt and played against the negative forces in the world.

Along the same line, Mr Vasques referred to the rich and unique heritage Egypt possessed, and emphasised Egypt’s pivotal role in the culture on both the regional and international levels. He also spoke about the role of the EU in supporting culture in Egypt by funding several cultural projects to the tune of some 20 million Euros. The aim, he said, was to protect cultural diversity, support national dialogue and, more importantly, provide universal access to knowledge and culture.


Draft vision 

Khaled Azab, Head of the Central Projects Sector at the BA, presented the draft of the “Visions of a General Framework for Egypt’s Cultural Policy”. Dr Azab stressed that it was merely a draft and open to changes.

The draft comprises eight pillars: Primary Overview; The Current Cultural State of Affairs; Cultural Reform in Egypt; Institutions and Mechanisms; Funding; The Digital Revolution and How to Deal with It; Implementation and Follow-Up; and a Conclusion.

The draft emphasises that Egyptian cultural reformation to shake off extremist infiltration of the originally tolerant, diverse culture is key to reconstructing the contemporary Egyptian character. Dr Azab said that the latent power in the Egyptian community should be mobilised in a way that would initiate creativity and fit in with the spirit of the modern age.

Cultural reform should make Egyptians more open to plurality and more accepting of other opinions, believing in rationality and scientific approach, possessing critical thought and cognitive knowledge, and becoming well-informed of what is happening around the world. In addition, it is important to reconstruct Egypt’s image as a State on the local, regional, and international levels.

Among the significant issues discussed in the draft are the importance of fostering youth, developing cultural institutions, reviewing cultural legislation, opening up to regional and global cultures, using modern technology to enhance and disseminate culture, promoting culture of creativity and freedom of expression, publishing translations of Arab cultural works into other languages and vice versa, nurturing children’s culture, making good use of cultural palaces, taking inventories of all historical and archeological buildings in Egypt that require restoration and renovation, and issuing national cultural newsletters on national history and folklore, and distributing free copies of them among university and school students.


Five cultural spheres

Dr Azab said Egypt had a vital cultural role to play in five spheres: the Arab, Islamic, African, Mediterranean, and worldwide. The Arabic language used in all the Arab World helped Egypt play a prominent role in that sphere for long years, but this role declined in the past few decades owing to economic and political reasons. The Arab World, in turn, plays an important role in the Islamic World whose population exceeds 1.4 billion.

In Africa, too, Egypt’s political presence declined in recent decades. Despite the richness of African culture and its extended global influence on fine arts, music and dance, Egypt was not able to establish an effective bridge of real cultural communication. 

The Fine Arts sphere has to be credited with providing a vital exchange of culture between Egypt, the Mediterranean World, and the world at large. The conference noted a general deterioration in the standard of biennales and national exhibitions.

Owing to the waning overall cultural exchange, the cultural movement in Egypt lost dynamism and cultural momentum. A lot needs to be done to regain the vitality lost. Artistic activities need to be revived, with more exhibitions in cultural palaces, and a raise in the budget for acquisitions. State theatres—especially those with a small capacity of 200 to 400 seats—should be multiplied to cover all the country. Egypt should open up to modern schools and the wide range of European trends in drama, criticism and cinema.

The Ministry of Culture is planning to open provincial opera houses to bring opera and music to wider audiences.

It was suggested that more exhibitions of Egyptian antiquities be held outside Egypt. This could bring in good revenue and also encourage the production of antiquity replicas to replace cheap imports from China, Malaysia and Indonesia.


Lucrative business

Creativity can lead to social and economic change, since creativity-related industries have become lucrative business. In 2001, for instance, the net revenue of American copyright bodies was estimated at some 7.75 per cent of the gross national product.

Among the suggestions proposed was the restructuring of the General Egyptian Book Organisation to go into digital publishing. Also that more effort should be put into encouraging young writers; writing Egypt’s long history from earliest times; providing scientific books on new topics such as BioVision, modern medicine, and space; and electronic gadgets. There should be an emphasis on translating and publishing Egyptian books to several languages: English, French and Spanish, and participating in book fairs in Europe and the US.

To support cultural activities in Egypt there needs to be integration of public and private roles. To keep the wheel of cultural production rolling and enhance its performance, every part of the cultural production process ought to participate. Cultural establishments have an important role to play in opening new gates of expression and creativity to satisfy consumers both with quantity and quality and to guarantee the perpetual development of culture.


Watani International

9 December 2015



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