Soft power takes off

24-01-2018 03:35 PM

Ekhlass Atallah -Ingy Samy

Egypt’s first female Minister of Culture, flautist and chairperson of Cairo Opera House, Ines Abdel-Dayem, promises …

“I am proud of what I have achieved at the Cairo Opera House, of being a flautist, and being the first woman to become Minister of Culture,” said Ines Abdel-Dayem on her first day in office.
If Ms Abdel-Dayem cited three reasons of which to be proud, Egyptians in general, and those in cultural circles in specific, could think of a long list to add to the three. Not least is her famously enlightened attitude, broad intellect, wide culture, thought that ventures outside the box, resolution, strength, and perseverance, and international connections. So it came as no surprise that Ms Abdel-Dayem’s appointment as Minister of Culture during the recent Cabinet reshuffle was warmly welcomed.

The flautist
Born in 1960, Abdel-Dayem graduated from the Flute Department of the Cairo Conservatoire in 1984. In 1990, she earned a PhD from Paris’s École Normale de Musique. During the period between her graduation from the Cairo Conservatoire and her PhD, she studied and earned higher diplomas for flute performance, chamber music, and solo performance. She toured expansively and performed in France, the Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, Spain, Bulgaria, Japan, the US, the United Kingdom, Morocco, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, Syria and Jordan. She also performed with The UNESCO International Orchestra in Paris, and with the Cairo Conservatoire Orchestra. She participated in numerous radio programmes, most importantly with Radio France.
Shuttling between Germany and Egypt, Ms Abdel-Dayem helped document and record the works of renowned composer Gamal Abdel-Rehim (1924 – 1988) who was a pianist, music educator, and among the few Egyptians who ventured into the field of composing classical music.
In 1999, Ms Abdel-Dayem set up at the Cairo Opera House a class for teaching children to play the flute at an early age. She also helped compile and arrange music education curricula in Egypt and many Arab countries. Ms Abdel-Dayem was also the long-time artistic advisor of the al-Nour wal-Amal Orchestra and Choir for the blind, which has gained international stature.
In 2003 Ms Abdel-Dayem was appointed director of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra and, in 2004, Dean of her Alma Mater: the Cairo Conservatoire.
In 2012 she became head of the Cairo Opera House, affiliated to the Ministry of Culture. She retained that post until her recent appointment as Minister of Culture, with one small interruption at the hands of the Islamist Muslim Brothers (MB) who had risen to power in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.

Conflict with Islamists
In June 2012, the MB Muhammad Mursi was elected President of Egypt, albeit with a very thin margin and through heavily contested election results. He appointed MB members to all top posts in the State, with the purpose of consolidating power and Islamising everything Egyptian. This rubbed most Egyptians in the wrong direction, especially those in the cultural domain.
In May 2013, the MB Alaa’ Abdel-Aziz was appointed Minster of Culture. From Day One it became obvious he was out to throttle cultural liberalism in Egypt; he worked to clear the Egyptian cultural domain of qualified, enlightened calibres. He started with dismissing Ahmed Megahed, the then head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), and followed with Egypt’s most progressive intellectuals who headed State cultural institutions. But the move that really gathered the force of a storm was his decision to relieve Ms Abdel-Dayem of her responsibility as chairperson of the Cairo Opera House.
Hundreds of those concerned with Cairo’s intellectual and cultural activity converged on the grounds of the Cairo Opera House, denouncing the dismissal of Ms Abdel-Dayem, and demanding that Mr Abdel-Aziz should leave. When it appeared that their demand fell on deaf ears, they held a sit-in for several days. In a gesture of practical protest against the dark, ultraconservative thought Mr Abdel-Aziz was attempting to impose and his Islamisation of culture, they rebelled by playing music, singing and dancing. Singers, musicians and workers at the Cairo Opera House joined in with gusto. And the protestor’s demands escalated from the dismissal of the Culture Minister to the overthrow of the MB rule in Egypt.
Ms Abdel-Dayem who feared the dark fate that appeared to threaten Egypt at the hands of the MB, would inaugurate each day’s sit-in activity to the tune of her flute.

Cairo Opera House Renaissance
On 30 June 2013, exactly one year following the swearing in of Mr Mursi, some 33 million Egyptians took to the streets to demand an end to the MB rule and that the President should leave. The army stepped in to prevent further unrest, and gave Mr Mursi a 48-hour ultimatum to resolve the crisis which had been brewing and escalating for months while he defied the public. He again belligerently rejected any resolution and, on 3 July 2013, was overthrown. Egypt became a secular State, and Adly Mansour, head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, became Interim President.
Ms Abdel-Dayem was reinstated to the topmost post of the Cairo Opera House on 17 July 2013. During the last five years, she was able to regain the Cairo Opera House’s standing as a beacon of fine culture. She encouraged top Egyptian music, singing, and dance groups to perform there, and also invited numerous international groups to perform on the theatres managed by the Cairo Opera House. She sent Cairo Opera House groups and orchestras to perform outside Egypt. She returned to the age-old traditions that had made the Opera House a well-loved and respected venue of fine culture and music. She also revived matinée concerts and shows for children.
In a novel move, Ms Abdel-Dayem collaborated with Culture Minister Helmy al-Namnam who was in office from September 2015 till January 2018 when Ms Abdel-Dayem replaced him, in introducing opera and music performances to wider, younger audiences. Performances were held at universities; the first was a concert by the renowned pianist Omar Khairat at Cairo University on 16 November 2015.

Honours and Awards
Ms Abdel-Dayem was awarded Egypt’s Academy of Arts’ Creativity Prize, as well as Egypt’s State Encouragement Award for Arts in 2001. Internationally, she won Best Performer for Arts from the South Korea Festival, the 1982 first prize at the Union of the Music Institutes in France, and received a certificate of merit in the Kobe International Flute Competition in Japan. In 2012, she was honoured as the best flute player in the Arab world at the First Arab-China Women’s Summit.
She has represented Egypt in numerous international festivals, including the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra Festival in Marseilles and the Nantes Arts Festival in France, the Rabat Festival of Arts in Morocco and the Thessaloniki Festival in Greece. Last December, she was chosen to head the Arab Academy of Music, affiliated to the Arab League, for the next four years.

Pressing issues
Once she was appointed Minister of Culture, Ms Abdel-Dayem announced that her first function would be the 49th edition of the Cairo International Book Fair which opens on 27 January 2018. She said that she was cooperating with Haitham al-Hag, Head of GEBO, to put the final touches to the fair. She insisted in pointing out that she was continuing work that Mr Namnam had already started.
Several pressing issues await Ms Abdel-Dayem. Topping the list is to complete restoration of Takkiyet Abul-Dahab, an early 20th-century structure in Islamic Cairo which is being restored to host a museum for Egypt’s famed novelist, Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911 – 2006). The works were halted by the Ministry of Antiquities for several concerns, including that works involving the museum fittings did not correspond to archaeological requirements.
Ms Abdel-Dayem is also expected to look into funding the restoration of Dar al-Kutub, the National Library and Archives, which has been closed ever since a terror bomb at the next door Cairo Security Headquarters severely damaged it in 2014; restoration was then estimated at EGP50 million, and funding was always short.

Budgets … budgets
Another important file that awaits a decision by Ms Abdel-Dayem is the budget of the culture palaces, which according to former head of the Culture Palaces Authority, Ashraf Amer was drastically cut down. He explained that the Authority had demanded a budget of EGP280 million to be able to fund new and ongoing cultural activities, but was only granted EGP66 million which, he said, cannot cater even for 20 per cent of the programmes. The budget allocated for applied arts also need to be revised.
The new Culture Minister needs to look into the status of art museums that have been or are closing down; this included the Gezira Art Museum, Mahmoud Khalil Museum, and the Wax Museum. She is also expected to revive the International Cairo Biennale for Arts which was among the world’s important art activities, but has been frozen for the past 10 years.
Another important issue concerns GEBO. Following the Central Bank of Egypt’s decision to float the Egyptian Pound in November 2016 and the ensuing rise in currency rates, GEBO has been facing a real problem with providing paper for publishing; printing paper in Egypt is an imported commodity. GEBO head, Mr Hag, says that he repeatedly addressed the Ministry of Finance for more funds to support publishing, but got no positive response. It will be the responsibility of Ms Abdel-Dayem to secure the funds needed.

Culture: the soft power
Egyptian public figures and intellectuals pronounced their expectations of the new Minister of Culture.
Writer Ammar Aly Hassan said that, in her new capacity, Ms Abdel-Dayem must convey to the decision-making circles in Egypt that culture is not a recreational issue, or a burden on the State budget. Rather, he said, it holds a very important role in the advancement of the Egyptian State by confronting extremism and fanaticism. As Egypt’s soft power, Egyptian culture should be exploited on the regional and international levels. He called on the Minister to lead a group of intellectuals and experts into formulating an absent cultural ‘strategy’. Mr Hassan also advised that creativity industries should be capitalised upon as a source of national income.
MP Ussama Heikal, head of the Parliament’s culture and media committee, said that he hoped the new Minister of Culture would tackle the issue of the fanatic religious address, which is in dire need of reform. President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi has long called for that, but not much has yet been done. Even though this issue lies squarely with the religious institutions, culture can play a significant role in spreading enlightened thought to counter extremism.

Carrying the torch
For her part, Ms Abdel-Dayem said that, as Minister of Culture, her plan was to take culture outside closed doors, and to use its momentous soft power to advantage. She said she was picking up from where her predecessor, Mr Namnam had left. Mr Namnam’s journey with the Ministry of Culture, she said, was ‘well-prized’. []
Less than a week into her appointment as minister, Ms Abdel-Dayem made it a point to honour her predecessor for his efforts and achievements. Mr Namnam appreciated the gesture, and extended to her his best wishes. The first appointment of a woman as Minister of Culture, he said, filled him with hope and made him very happy.

Watani International
24 January 2018

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