As supporters of Egypt’s Tamarod (rebel) movement gear up for the much anticipated June 30 protest for President Mohamed Morsi’s removal, Egyptian artists and intellectuals are in a fight to prove that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Egypt has long been revered as a cultural capital in the Middle East. From Umm Kulthum to Naguib Mahfouz to the hundreds of Egyptian-made movies that are broadcast on Arab-language television station day and night, Egypt’s cultural and artistic scene is a source of pride for many inside the country.
Amid ongoing unrest, however, a new battle between politics and art has started to fold.
Egypt’s new Culture Minister, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, appears to be on a rampage, carrying out an “administrative massacre,” as described by Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany. Since his appointment in early May, Abdel-Aziz has fired a slew of senior culture ministry officials, including Salah El-Meligy, head of Egypt’s Central Administration of Museums and Exhibitions, as well as its Fine Arts Sector; Enas Abdel-Dayem, head of the Opera House; Abdel Nasser Hassan, head of the Egyptian National Library and Archives; and Ahmed Mujahid, head of the Egyptian General Book Authority.
Thanks to these measures, in less than a month, the ministry has been emptied of many officials some of who have voluntarily left in disgust. This includes the Secretary General of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Culture, Said Tawfiq, who resigned in disapproval over Abdel-Aziz’s actions.
To fill the now vacant positions, a number of Brotherhood-friendly faces have been appointed. “My concern is providing cultural services throughout Egypt, not financial benefits for a few intellectuals,” Abdel-Aziz said in a recent interview regarding the dismissals.
There is a fear that the sacking of ministry officials will pave the way for more budget cuts to the arts, as Egypt continues to struggle with economic hardship. With no explanation provided for these measures beyond the need for “new blood” and a desire to end corruption, many artists perceive Abdel-Aziz’s actions as an attempt to “Brotherhoodize” Egyptian culture. Because culture and identity are synonymous in Egypt, such a move may be aimed at furthering the Brotherhood’s grasp over the country.
“I am a follower of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideas, especially as put forth in the works of its founder Hassan El-Banna,” Khaled Fahmy told Ahram Online. Fahmy, a respected Egyptian academic, replaces Abdel Nasser Hassan as head of the National Library and Archives, becoming the gatekeeper to knowledge preservation in the country.
Notwithstanding his academic credentials, Fahmy’s statements appear to give credence to the grievances of artists, intellectuals, and writers who have conducted sit-ins at the Ministry of Culture, protests at the Opera House, and demonstrations in front of theatres in Alexandria to protest Abdel Aziz’s actions.
After days of protests at the ministry headquarters in Cairo, demonstrations turned violent on June 11, when Brotherhood supporters clashed with activists who have been petitioning for Abdel-Aziz’s removal. On May 29, the cast of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida took to the Opera House stage, but did not perform. “In a stand against a detailed plan to destroy culture and fine arts in Egypt we abstain from performing tonight’s opera,” said conductor Nayer Nagi, as actors and crewmembers behind him held banners and signs calling for the removal of Abdel-Aziz.
These protests may pale in comparison to massive demonstrations in Tahrir or strikes by union members and labor workers over the past few years, but they are significant for a very important reason. While the persecution of artists, writers, and intellectuals surely existed under Hosni Mubarak, the arts remained alive and untainted by imposed ideology. Although historians, like Khaled Fahmy, argue that Egypt has forgotten its rich archives and museums, leaving them dusty and unvisited, there is still much pride and respect for these institutions. A is creating a new chapter in Egyptian cultural production, filled with new forms of expression and art. Abdel-Aziz’s actions appear to be an attempt to stamp out the light of this new sun by asserting Brotherhood control over the Ministry of Culture.
While the Brotherhood cannot control creativity, it can play a role in controlling public dissemination of art and knowledge in ways similar to recent efforts at curbing freedom of expression. Even if not fully successful, such actions are a threat to and a frightening prospect for Egypt’s future.