Political & religious pressures restrict our operational freedom: Minister of Culture

Ahram Online talks to Shaker Abd El-Hamid, the newly appointed minister of culture, about challenges and pressures facing the ministry in these turbulent times

Published on Thursday 29 Dec 2011 in Ahram Online

On 7 December Dr Shaker Abd El Hamid was appointed minister of culture, the fourth since 31 January. Following the change of cabinet under Mubarak, on 31 January 2011, Farouk Hosni – who served as minister of culture was for 24 years – was replaced by Gaber Asfour, who resigned on 8 February. Mohamed El-Sawy was appointed minister on nine days after the ouster of Mubarak on 11 February but, not welcomed by intellectuals, he was removed a few days later. Emad Abu Ghazi, appointed at the beginning of March, was far more popular, but on 20 November he resigned from the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf in protest of the brutal attacks on protesters.

Prior to assuming his ministerial position in mid-August, Abd El Hamid was appointed Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Culture, following the resignation of Ezzedine Choukri. He is a professor at the academy of arts and has published several studies on the relation between psychology and art, winning Jordan’s Abdul Hameed Shoman Award for Young Arab Scientists in the humanities in 1990 and the State Award in social studies in 2003.

Shaker Abd El Hamid spoke to Ahram Online about the current arts and culture scene and how the ministry is planning to approach such challenging realities.


Ahram Online (AO): What are the major challenges that the ministry of culture is facing at the current point in Egyptian history?

Dr Shaked Abd El-Hamid (ShH): There are a variety of challenges. The first is the budget. We do not have enough money to engage in as many projects as we would like to. There was around LE100 million yearly coming to the ministry of culture from the antiquities sector. The moment the antiquities sector became independent and the ministry of antiquities was formed [on 31 January 2011, while Mubarak was still in power], no more funds are coming. Understandably, today, the ministry of antiquities is also under great pressures, with tourism badly affected over the past months. Inadequate budget and financial struggles not only affect the ministries directly but also have a widespread impact on many individuals. Taking this into consideration, the ministry of culture is not always able to support the projects and initiatives proposed to it; we simply do not have enough money.

Another problem is the pressures exerted on us, political and religious pressures among them. They all restrict our operational freedom; it is not as it used to be in the past. Many decisions are linked often to political situation, demonstrations, ongoing conflicts etc. On the other hand, with the preliminary results of the elections, there is an apparent threat of Islamist views being imposed on all aspects of life including the arts scene. Such pressures make it difficult for us to act with the same freedom as before. Yet, let’s not forget that the major and the biggest challenge is to return to a state of peace throughout society, to deal with the conflicts and frictions that have surfaced.

AO: As you say, there are many limitations placed on the arts and culture scene: financial, political, Islamist and social limitations. Are you worried about the future of arts and culture in Egypt and what solutions would you suggest?

ShH: I always believe the solution is finding the middle ground; we need to reach a compromise. We should not enter into conflicts with others. I believe in the concept of dialogue as much as I believe in freedom and creativity. There will be controversies but dialogue must be opened. I expect some discussions to become harsh as after all we need to stress and defend some values; we cannot give in to a purely moralising value system, there are also artistic values that need to be taken into consideration. Definitely, we will not be able to behave as in the past. Having said that, I will not let anyone enforce his views and direct me to do this or that. Though I am aware there are sectors that will be subject to a huge challenge and I expect some artistic performances will be cancelled. Take the Cairo Opera Ballet Company for example, I expect that the company will be in danger.

AO: Did you receive any threats or direct instructions related to ballet performances?

ShH: No, I just predict it: serious problems will surface.

AO: Taking into consideration all the social-political circumstances and all the pressures you mention, how do you define “freedom of expression”?

ShH: In those circumstances I expect that artists will have to send signals in their art, without being direct. Artists will have to operate with symbols; they will wear masks instead of inciting direct artistic conflicts as used to be the case. I don’t think there will be freedom to express everything on topics like religion or sexuality, not the same freedom as there was before.

AO: But isn’t this a very pessimistic view?

ShH: Definitely; however, I also believe that there has to be an adaptation of behaviour. We need to induce change in thoughts and ideologies.  This will only come about through dialogue. Some Islamist trends show relevant flexibility and might open the door to dialogue. The Muslim Brotherhood have their own music group now, they are interested in theatre. So there are grounds for an intellectual exchange and exchange of thoughts that could lead to progress. Still, of course, Salafis do not provide any reason for hope in that regard.

AO: What about those who wish to pursue projects or publish products that are considered “off limits” under current pressures?

ShH: As the ministry of culture, we won’t be able to support them, though such projects could find success outside the ministry, through independent channels. At the end of the day, the ministry of culture belongs to the state and has to follow “national values” – though, under the current circumstances, I still do not know for sure what those “national values” are. Many people are two-faced. They are offended by “immoral” statements made in public but will not refrain from exercising other own “immoral” activities in their homes, on the internet – secretly. Yet they go on talking about what is improper or sinful, whereas the real sin is not in having access such materials it is in killing, stealing as well as lying, cheating or being manipulative…

AO: Still on the subject of pressures: what about the presence of police officers implanted in most cultural institutions, including the ministry of culture itself?

ShH: This is state policy. We cannot do anything about it.

AO: I want to use a big word: corruption; one of the major concerns of people working in many cultural institutions. What are the ministry’s plans for a crackdown on corruption?

ShH: I transferred several files bearing evidence of corruption to prosecutor’s office. These include cases from the Cairo Opera House and the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts, among others. We are starting the cleansing process. I hope this is satisfactory for now.

AO: During your meeting with the Art Lovers Society[22 December], a large part of the discussion revolved around the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces. Over 500 palaces with thousands of employees, most of them not even art enthusiasts. Today the palaces are in a tragic condition, on the architectural and logistical levels; most are in no way serving their purpose. How will the ministry deal with this situation and similar challenges in other cultural sectors?

ShH: It requires a major reorganization plan. It needs to be properly studied, as there is a social factor which linked to national security. Let’s say one of the cultural institutions has 1, 000 employees and we know that 50 are enough to run the place efficiently. The problem is in relocating the 950 remaining employees. In the current situation, if they feel threatened, they will demonstrate or go on strike. So we keep them; and of course, this in itself is a mistake. There is just no way around it for the time being. This is just one example of many accumulated mistakes that we have to deal with now. It will take effort and time to sort through such problems. The current ministry will not stay in office for more than six months and we won’t be able to address all the issues; we can’t change the world in six months, but we do the best we can.

AO: One positive development is that the ministry has opened the door to arts on the street, El Fan Midan being one example.

ShH: Yes, this is one of the most important roles of arts and culture and we will continue reaching out to a broader audience. We financially support El Fan Midan, as well as a few independent groups working with similar concepts.

AO: On the one hand the ministry opens up to the wider audience, but on the other hand it is cancelling major festivals scheduled to take place this year, including the Cairo International Film Festival and the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre. What is the future of those initiatives?

ShH: They have not been cancelled, only postponed. Those events are postponed until the general circumstances are stable enough to hold them. The festivals also need a new approach and vision. Every year, the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre costs the ministry an enormous amount of money. We need to think about new strategies, for example limiting the number of troupes. It all needs major revamping so the festivals have a clear role in society.

AO: How wide is the margin of independence for the ministry within the cabinet as a whole?

ShH: We do not have to follow instructions. We have to act according to our conscience in the interest  national welfare. At the same time my decisions are based on consultation with others. I might impose some decisions at a critical moment, when needed. So there is a margin for personal decision making yet it needs to be well thought out and not result from an emotional outburst. Limitations would not come from the cabinet; they are dictated by the circumstances the country is in.

AO: One of the major pitfalls of the arts and culture scene is the lack of proper art education.

ShH: There is a serious crisis in all education. It will not be easily fixed. It needs effort and tools and there has to be cooperation between different ministries. There has to be a clear educational curriculum for the arts in primary and secondary schools for example. We need wise strategies to avoid drowning the student in data, which makes him hate study and not enjoy the process of knowledge. I hope to discuss this issue, yet let’s be realistic: the whole process needs time and perseverance. We need time to suggest and implement changes. Nothing can be implemented before the new school year and we already have many other pressing issues.

AO: Everything seems to be extremely difficult or maybe we have realized it only now. Do you have any solutions for lifting the cultural scene, or at least saving it from drowning?

ShH: I believe that one of the keys is to change the way people think. Once this is achieved, everything else will fall into place. Of course that’s no easy task. Take for example of my discussions with some people when I state that we need a country based on civil concepts and not religious (Islamic) ones; the next day I find people on the internet accusing me of being an atheist. What is the problem with being a Muslim and enlightened at the same time? Unfortunately, ignorance is too widespread in Egyptian society.

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