Bye bye freedom?

07-06-2013 01:24 PM

Robeir al-Faris - Nader Shukry

Following the ikhwanisation of the various State institutions, is it now the turn of culture?

Last weekend saw the Paris Opera and the Prague Opera both suspend their performances. They did so in solidarity with the Cairo Opera House whose activities and staff are coming under heavy fire from the Islamist ruling regime in Egypt. 
In Cairo, strong protests were held against the targeting of cultural activity. Liberal writers, speakers, and poets vociferously wrote and spoke against the official offensive targeting the freedom of artistic expression, and insisted they would never give up their right to freely express their thoughts and create art in all forms.  
Workers at the Cairo Opera House, musicians, singers, dancers, and artists in all fields held several demonstrations throughout at the grounds of the opera house in Cairo and in front of the Culture Ministry in Doqqi, Giza. They sang and danced and held street shows to vocally demonstrate against what they branded as attempts to ikhwanise culture; ikhwan is Arabic for ‘brothers’, an allusion to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The protestors announced their resolve to stand up to attempts to muffle freedom of artistic expression, and their zeal to carry the torch of enlightenment to all Egyptians despite adverse efforts by the Islamists.
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Hard times
The Cairo Opera House is not alone in sustaining Islamist blows. Once President Mursi, himself a MB member, came to power last year, it was obvious the Culture Ministry was coming in for hard times. For starters, the budget of the ministry suffered a 15 per cent cut. Predictably, this had the effect of shrinking various cultural activities, especially in the fields of publishing and holding seminars, conferences, and festivals. 
The MB mouthpiece, the daily paper al-Hurriya wal-Adaala (Freedom and Justice), made it its business to harshly criticise the Culture Ministry. It branded the ministry officials as ‘communist’—a claim which in Egyptian common culture is synonymous with the widely-rejected ‘atheists’—and insisted that they worked to spread “incorrect attitudes”. As evidence, the paper cited the Ministry’s publication of the poetry volume Daftar Sigara (Journal of a Cigarette) by the Lebanese poet Paul Shaul, as an effort to promote smoking. In fact, the poet uses the figurative puff of smoke as a takeoff for diverse thoughts.
The Cairo International Film Festival, an annual event that used to be held in Cairo with aplomb, was especially muted this year. Whereas Cairenes had always had been used to seeing the festival films screened in theatres all over Cairo, this was not so this year; the films were only screened inside the Cairo Opera house. The public were excluded; it was as though films were some sinful activity. 
The culture ministers, normally appointed from among the ministry’s top brass, were regularly harassed—morally and materially—by the regime’s Islamist authorities. Emad Eddin Abu-Ghazi and Saber Arab, both among the most active culture ministers who served recently, faced such pestering that Arab whose term extended for several months tendered his resignation more than once. 
Dismissals en masse
It took the new culture minister, Alaa’ Abdel-Aziz, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a writer in al-Hurriya wal-Adaala (Freedom and Justice) no more than two days in office to wreak havoc with Egypt’s cultural arena. 
In what was obviously an attempt to do away with liberal culture, be that local or global, he dismissed en masse the leading figures who were the vanguards of enlightenment in the Culture Ministry. He made no secret of his mission; he declared he had come to “purge the ministry of corruption”. He started with dismissing the head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) Ahmed Megahed and the head of the Plastic Arts Sector Salah al-Meleigy. He threatened to fire the head of the Arts Academy Sameh Mahran. He demanded of Usama Heikal, the head of Dar al-Kutub—Egypt’s national library, to resign, but Heikal refused. The poet Ahmed Abdel-Moeti Higazy who heads the Poetry House and is editor-in-chief of the quarterly Ibdaa (Creativity), however, resigned his post, saying it would be impossible for him to work with the new administration. More dismissals and resignations are sure to come.
What corruption?
But the move which really gathered the force of a storm was the dismissal of the head of Cairo Opera House, Ines Abdel-Dayem. Apart from being an artist in her own right; Dayem is a renowned flautist; she was acclaimed as a competent manager. Her dismissal brought on a wave of angry protest, especially that it was given religious cover. 
The Salafis, a substantial bloc in the Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt’s Parliament, exploded a bombshell when the Salafi MP Gamal Hamed demanded that ballet should be banned in Egypt because it was an art that involved near-nudity and spread vice. The head of the Shura committee for culture, media, and tourism; Fathy Shehab, said that such ‘art’ should not be tolerated.
The Cairo Opera House musicians and singers lost no time to announce their denouncement of what they described as the Culture Minister’s attempts to ikhwanise the opera house, and declared their unabashed support of Dayem. They demanded her return. Several of them suspended scheduled performances; among them were the prominent musicians Omar Khairat and Nayer Nagy, as well as the marimba player Nesma Abdel-Aziz.
For her part, Dayem said she saw an obvious plan by the new minister to bring down the Cairo Opera House as we always knew it. “Instead of introducing plans for new cultural projects,” Dayem said, “the new minister is ridding the Culture Ministry of figures of enlightenment. He says he wishes to purge the ministry of corruption, but he has not produced one shred of evidence that any of the individuals he is dismissing are guilty of corruption.” 
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Emblem of diversity
“We are going through a real cultural crisis,” the musicologist Dr Hanaa’ Tanius says. Tanius had, throughout the last 10 years, succeeded in introducing Coptic music to Egyptian audiences through including performances by the Umm al-Nour Choir in the repertoire of the Cairo Opera House. “The Cairo Opera House was the emblem of cultural diversity. It presented world classics as well as modern works. It honoured Islamic and Christian occasions and events, and worked to bring Egyptians closer and build tolerance and understanding. Now we risk losing all that.”
The prima ballerina Nadine was incensed at the Salafi words against ballet. “How do these people think?” she cried. “Is that all they see in ballet? Are they governed by nothing but the ‘vice’ which apparently only exists in their heads and hearts?”
Formidable achievement
The Egyptian Ministry of Culture has always been famous as a stronghold of progressive, liberal culture. Founded in the 1950s after Egypt overthrew the monarchy and became a republic, it undertook the role that had been previously played by Egypt’s nobility and private sector in sponsoring the arts and artists. But, under the first name of the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance, its scope went way beyond that traditional role, and spread to encompass the full range of literary and artisitic fields. It sponsored publishing, theatre, film, music, ballet and dancing, as well as the arts. Under its aegis, the Egyptian ballet group was born, as were groups for expressive dance, modern dance and folk dancing. Several orchestras were founded, among them the Cairo Symphony Orchestra, the Cairo Opera House Orchestra, and the Oriental Music Orchestra.  
The ministry sponsored film festivals, TV works, theatre festivals, and local and international art events.
As a publisher, the Culture Ministry was behind the movement to make books and knowledge accessible to all. At heavily subsidised, affordable prices, a large sector of Egyptians were introduced to local and world classic and modern works. 
As a rule, the ministry worked to spread enlightened thought and to expose extremist concepts. In very few cases, books were printed that endorsed Islamist or anti-Christian thought; Watani drew attention to two such cases and the ministry responded positively by taking corrective measures. 
The ministry was more often than not governed by liberal cadres of workers, even though Islamist ideas found some headway among the printshop workers during the last decade. As Islamists in Egypt gained more and more ground, these workers rallied against specific works or passages in books, and sometimes succeeded in pressuring the ministry into removing them.
Ever since the Islamists came to power, however, the Culture Ministry has gone into overdrive to sponsor liberal works. It was as though the officials responsible realised they were running out of time, so took pains to seize whatever opportunity they know to spread enlightened ideas and promote understanding and tolerance. Among the great books published was an encyclopaedia of Coptic Art and the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church. To promote an understanding of Copts, the ministry published a book on Coptic folklore and another offering for non-Christians a simplified explanation of church buildings, their function and history. And, to expose Islamist thought and practice, it printed books on political Islam, the ‘secret files’ of the MB, and the Muslim ‘sisters’ in the MB movement.
And soon enough, right on time and as expected, the MB did pounce on the propagators of culture. But will the gentle power of culture be able to win the final battle, or will it buckle beneath the shear power of brute force?
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WATANI International
7 June 2013
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