19 December 2010
Future of culture in Egypt – BA
Anyone living in Egypt today cannot fail to observe that traditional Egyptian culture is taking second place to new values, which appear in their turn to be undergoing constant change. Is an altogether ‘new’ culture in the process of evolving? Or is it an attempt to come to terms with new-age variables and old-age constants? “The Future of Culture in Egypt … Visions of the Middle Generation”, a recent seminar held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, attempted to find answers to these and related questions.
Participating in the two-day seminar were a number of Egyptian intellectuals, innovators and researchers of the so-called ‘middle generation’, those born in Egypt in the 1960s and the 1970s, and who are old enough to remember and be affected by the Six-Day War and defeat, followed by the October 1973 victory, and all the accompanying—and resulting—changes.
The State as social capital
The writer and Coptic activist Sameh Fawzi spoke on the ‘social capital’. In Egypt, Fawzi said, traditional family and friends were the main social networks, which in itself could lead to problems. This, he said, was obvious during the recent elections when a large sector of the electorate preferred to vote for candidates according to family or clan loyalty and not according to the competence of the candidate. Fawzi drew attention to the essential role of civil and State institutions as social capital, a role Egypt direly needed, he said. He pointed that, for those who believe the State role had to be minimal, the global financial crisis proved that regulatory measures by governments were essential, thereby underscoring the role of the State as social capital.
In a session on ‘searching for a new culture’, rights’ activist Aleieddin Hilal pointed out that calls for change had never ceased through the ages. In the Egypt of the 1920s, the call was for modernisation. In the 1950s and 60’s there was a call to rebuild the Egyptian personality. The issue of reform was the concern of all generations, he said, not the middle generation alone. Hilal volunteered that magic solutions did not always lie in a ‘new culture’, which did not necessarily imply enlightened thought. The Bolshevic revolution in Russia in 1917, he said, is a case in point that proves that not all change is for the good. The fact that it thrived on repressive policies and collapsed with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s is sufficient proof that peoples are not mere passive receivers but are active participators where change is concerned.
“Searching for a new culture does not mean getting rid of the old,” Hilal said. “Many cultural aspects are all but impossible to change.”
Culture of protest
For senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies Dina Shehata, modern-day Egypt has increasingly become a scene for protest. Protest movements were not born overnight, Shehata explained; it has taken three stages for fully-fledged protest movements to take shape. The first stage began with the formation of the public committee to support the Palestinian Intifada, which was mainly founded by the middle generation. The movements of this stage focused on external issues, explained Shehata. The formation in 2004 of the Kifaya political movement to advocate change on the political front was the highlight of the second stage, which mainly centred on Egyptian issues. Since 2007 the Egyptian arena has been witnessing protest movements which focus on economic and social demands.
Even though Egypt’s new social movements ranged from the political to the civic, they shared common aspects, Shehata noted. They were all formed outside the framework of the State and civil organisations; they all depend on direct political action; they were mainly formed by the middle generation, who also played a significant role in promoting those movements to the young.
The emergence of protest movements, Shehata pointed out, indicated that the Egyptian community was becoming more politically oriented. It implied the failure of both the current official and non-official institutions to represent the different sectors of the community. A culture of protest was taking hold, she said, which was a new aspect to our otherwise silent community.
The seminar went on to discuss “Where we stand from history”. Zagazig University professor Hatem al-Tahawy, explained that history was not mere ink on paper, but rather events that took place and were recorded, so that every generation could refer to and benefit from them. Tahawy explained that history was neither written in the same way in all eras, nor with the same outlook. The 20th century, he said, saw a transition period in history writing which reflected the intellectual trends of the time. He called on readers of history to leave out the ideologies and to reread history while focusing on the cultural and civilisational aspects of the times.
“All historians are biased, a historian can never be unbiased”, was the opinion voiced by Emad Abu-Ghazi, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Culture. He pointed to a “real problem” with the history curriculum taught in Egyptian schools, which is highly politicised and ideologised, and to a “lack of vision” in history departments in Egyptian universities.
The notion that young people are not interested in reading history was challenged by Suzanne Abed of the BA’s Memory of Modern Egypt project. The Memory of Modern Egypt is a digital repository documenting the last 200 years of Egypt’s modern history through tens of thousands of varying items, such as documents, pictures, audios, videos, maps, articles, stamps, coins, that created an index of 14 different material types. Abed pointed out that the project offers students and those interested in history an unprecedented interactive method to explore history. The whole point, Abed said, was how to present the historical issues.