Culture protests

We have a guest post from occasional (and valued) contributor Parastou Hassouri on the protests by artists and intellectuals that have been going on for some time now at the Ministry of Culture in Cairo.  

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Over the past week, I have been attending, with some regularity, the protests that are being staged in front of the Culture Ministry in Zamalek. 

The protests/sit-in have been taking place on a daily basis since June 5th, when the demonstrators, many of them members of the artistic community, broke into and occupied the Culture Ministry building to demand the removal of the newly-appointed Minister of Culture, Alaa Abdel Aziz, whom they see as trying to “Ikhwanize” the arts.  Alaa Abdel Aziz, who was appointed by President Morsi during a cabinet shake-up in early May, promptly alienated the artistic community (often referred to as the muthaqafeen, literally “the cultured”) by firing the heads of the General Egyptian Book Organization, the Fine Arts Sector, the Cairo Opera House, and the National Library and Archives.  His firing of the Opera House Director Ines Abdel Dayem, in particular, aggrieved the artistic community and catalyzed them into action.  On May 27, the opening night of Aida, the Opera House curtains lifted on performers and staff in full costume holding anti-brotherhood signs and chanting for the downfall of the regime. 

The protests, which are part sit-in and part street festival, feature different performances each night, with interludes of anti-regime chanting.  The performances take place on a make-shift stage in front of the ministry, though with each passing day, the set-up and light and sound system gets more sophisticated. 

There have been a wide range of performances, with figures like singer Ramy Essam, who catapulted to fame during the original 18 days of protest in Tahrir Square, performing with some regularity.  The largest audiences have gathered to see members of the Cairo ballet troop perform to the music of Zorba.  The ballet performance was prompted by statements made by Islamist Shura Council member Gamal Hamed, who referred to ballet as indecent and proposed that it should be banned.  Before their first ballet performance, Hani Hassan, principal dancer of the Cairo ballet, made an impassioned speech in favor of the arts, and stated that he is an Egyptian citizen, like any other, who should have the right to make a living and express himself.  At the end of the performance, someone took the microphone and stated:  “if this is apostasy, then I am an apostate.” (لو دا كفر، انا كافر) His statement drew wild cheers from the audience. 

There have also been readings of satiric poetry, mocking the Ikhwan and denouncing their efforts to dictate morality for all.  Also, different performing artists and actors make appearances and sign the petition for early presidential elections being circulated by the Tamarrod (“Rebel”) campaign.  Some prominent authors have attended the protests and made speeches, including Bahaa Taher. Even politicians have made appearances, including former People’s Assembly member Ziyad al-Uleimi, as well as presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Khaled Ali. (Interestingly, Hamdeen Sabahi was jeered and heckled some by the spectators, who expressed frustration with the National Salvation Front, called him an opportunist, and asked him about justice for martyrs of the revolution and since the revolution). 

In interludes between performances, there is quite a bit of chanting against the Ikhwan and many invoke the Tamarrod campaign and the 30th of June as the day of reckoning with the Ikhwan. 

One day when I went to the protest, I noticed author Ahdaf Soueif in the audience and spoke to her for some time about the importance of keeping a space for such expression open and the fact that by and large, the sit-in has been proceeding peacefully and without disruption (there have been two incidents in which FJP supporters have come to counter-demonstrate and disrupt the protests, but in both instances they were pushed back by the demonstrators and now security is present at the scene). 

When I told Soueif that I was originally from Iran, she raised her eyebrows knowingly, in that way many activists I have met, whether in Egypt or in Tunisia, do when they learn I am from Iran.  To them, Iran is the nightmare scenario they do not want to see develop in their own countries. 

I am always amused by these thoughts/expressions because the reactions often reveal to me how much of a disconnect there is between the manner in which Iran is portrayed in media and the reality on the ground.  Also, in the context of discussing cultural expression, I find worries about turning into Iran ironic, since some would argue that the cultural scene in Iran has actually flourished since the revolution. 

In the immediate aftermath of 1979, much that would be considered entertainment was deemed unacceptable by the Islamic Republic and most popular singers, dancers, actors, fled Iran and went into exile (and from exile they continue to produce their art).  However, the art that was then produced in Iran, due specifically to the restrictions of censorship, became more refined, more subtle, more sophisticated.  Cinema has been the prime example of this.  But also, since pop music was initially deemed unacceptable, Western, and decadent, more and more artists began to focus on traditional Persian music.  Many Iranians began to embrace traditional arts, be it calligraphy or painting, or learning to play traditional instruments. 

This is not to say that there have not been problems. Artists of all stripes are always trying to second-guess the censors, and everyone knows that there are lines and if they are crossed, they will be punished (as filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been). 

What I mean to say is that the revolution didn’t lead to the death of cultural production in Iran and most obviously it will not in Egypt either.

This is also not to say that the artists expressing concerns about the stifling of artistic freedom and the “Ikhwanization” of culture are not right to stand their ground. 

The vehemence with which the sit-in participants object to Abdel Aziz and decry the Brotherhood are interesting, given that I do not recall, during my time in Egypt, any protest of similar length and intensity against the Mubarak-era culture minister, Farouk Hosny.  Hosny was the subject of much international controversy when his name was put forth as a candidate to head UNESCO, and his detractors revealed anti-Semitic statements he had allegedly made in reference to the collections at the library in Alexandria.  However, even prior to that, many artists had grievances against Hosny, whose friendship with Suzanne Mubarak ensured his tenure (most notably when his offer of resignation was rejected by Mubarak after a fire at the Beni Soueif Cultural Center which resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries) and protected him from allegations of  corruption. 

It was inevitable that after Mubarak’s resignation, Hosny would have to step down.  And since his departure, there have been four Culture ministers. As far as I can tell, Abdel Aziz’s predecessor, Professor Emad Abu Ghazi, was respected by the artistic community.  And perhaps this is why the appointment of Abdel Aziz has caused such anger. 

Though it is clear that in any post-revolution environment, there will be shake-ups and transfers of power, it seems that what is aggrieving the artists is the fact that Abdel Aziz’s selections are political and will not necessarily advance and promote culture. 

However, the protests have gone beyond culture.  The chants are increasingly against the regime as a whole, and chants from 2011 and 2012 are being revived and adjusted, calling for a downfall of the regime.  One common chant is “Wake up Morsy, the 30th of June will be your last day.” 

The protests are increasing looking like a dress rehearsal for the 30th of June, past which date, no one knows what exactly will happen.

In the meanwhile, though, everyone’s singing, dancing, and occasionally crying, but in general reviving the spirit and camraderie of Tahrir’s 18 days, for which there is already a great deal of nostalgia. 

Note: For a different, critical take on the protests, see this post by Egyptian novelist Youssef Rakha