Still butting heads

Musicians perform at this year’s Cairo International Jazz Festival (Ramy Samir/Cairo Jazz Festival)
Musicians perform at this year’s Cairo International Jazz Festival (Ramy Samir/Cairo Jazz Festival)

Cairo’s independent artists are making waves in the wake of the downfall of Mubarak, but still clash with the Ministry of Culture.

Published in Asharq Al-Awsat

Egypt’s January 2011 Revolution has reshaped the political, social and ideological landscape of the country. It has also infused the artistic scene framework with new ideas and energy, and as a by-product has shaken up the relationship between a new generation of artists and the state institutions that have previously dominated Egypt’s cultural life.

In previous decades, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture used its resources to run many artistic activities and cultural exchanges, but it operated within a very narrow social sector they did not address the lives of most Egyptians. In the early 1990s, an alternative arts scene began to emerge in Egypt, with independent artists and institutions that had little in common with the Ministry of Culture, which had the budget and tools to initiate many high-profile cultural activities. Two decades later, infused with the revolutionary spirit of January 2011, the independent arts scene has taken Egypt by storm, spreading its wings across the country.

Time and again, the products from state-approved cultural activity has failed to resonate with the young generation of Egypt’s artists, while the independent culture—despite a lack of resources—penetrated Egypt’s cities and provinces much faster than the Ministry of Culture would. Now, with the downfall of Mubarak, the clash between the two is coming out into the open, though both sides have made efforts to bridge the gap.

Downfall of a cultural leviathan

“[The] Ministry of Culture and National Guidance, as it was called when established in 1958, was from the beginning a government mouthpiece for then president Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his regime,” Basma El-Husseiny told Asharq Al-Awsat. El-Husseiny is the Managing Director of the dynamic Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy), the first non-governmental cultural organization in the Arab region.

She says that little changed in the ensuing decades, and “the ministry’s nature might have slightly changed over the decades, but this has never stopped it from being the regime’s propaganda tool, soon an instrument to promote Mubarak and his family.” El-Husseiny points to the national celebrations such as 23 July 1952 Revolution, victory of 6 October 1973 war and others, which were reserved for the regime’s members, without meaningful public participation.

“The Ministry liked glamor, and used to organize large-scale festivals or showered institutions such as the Cairo Opera House with money allowing them to invite the international performers. However all those events were [aimed at] gratifying the tastes of the intellectual elite and the upper middle class, not giving anything to the majority of Egyptians,” she adds.

But even the glamor is now in question. During the cabinet reshuffle at the peak of revolution (31 January 2011), Farouk Hosni, who served as the minister of culture for 24 years, was removed. The following months proved that replacement of one person, even a minister, is not enough, and much bigger challenges remain. Hosni’s replacements have done little to develop links with Egypt’s independent arts scene, and claim to have their hands tied by the diminished budgets, while arguing that the ministry’s structure and mind-set cannot be changed overnight.

The same day as the January 2011 cabinet reshuffle, the Ministry lost one of its important branches: the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), which became the independent Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA). As a consequence, the Ministry of Culture lost a valuable source of funding: a share of the profits made by the SCA from the then-booming tourism sector. Over one year later, the Prime Minister Hesham Kandil requested an additional 20 percent cut in the Ministry of Culture’s budget.

The financial limitations allegedly challenged many high-profile state-run festivals: the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET) has not run since 2010, while the Cairo International Children’s Film Festival did not take place this year, with no explanation provided form the ministry. The 6th Egyptian National Theatre Festival was recently revived after a 2-year suspension, but with less funding than in previous years, a fact that hit the many self-funded theatre companies. The Cairo International Film Festival, which returned after a year’s absence, was accused by artists of ignoring Egypt’s emerging independent young filmmakers. Though a few other festivals have been restored, their logistical and marketing sides offer lots to grumble about.

The financial constraints extend towards the many other institutions operating under the ministry of culture, such as the Cairo Opera House. Today, the opera depends on its own artistic groups while opening doors to independent artists as well as artists invited—and sponsored—by the foreign cultural institutions or embassies operating in Egypt.

At a crossroads?

Possibly one of the biggest burdens that the ministry faces now are Egypt’s artists themselves. “There are two important facts that resulted from the Revolution: People feel entitled to access to culture, and have started demanding that public institutions support their artistic activities. This only adds to the list of frustrations of the ministry,” El-Husseiny says.
Emad Abu Ghazi, a former minister of culture, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The ministry needs to revise its role in the country and spread its activities to target the many social strata. The Ministry doesn’t need a large budget to offer culture to the people. Small but meaningful activities can be scattered across the governorates, reaching all Egyptians equally.”

Abu Ghazi entered office in March 2011, the third minister since January of that year. He was the first minister accepted by the revolutionaries, and as such he tried to introduce many changes to the ministry and develop link with new social groups. In November 2011, he resigned from Essam Sharaf’s cabinet in protest at the violence used against protesters.

In April 2011, the Independent Arts Coalition, consisting of independent artists and institutions launched El-Fan Midan (Art is a Square). This one-day festival organized monthly brings arts and culture to the squares of Egypt through music, theatre and visual arts events. According to El-Husseiny, who is also one of the people behind El-Fan Midan, Abu Ghazi supported this successful initiative for three consecutive months with funding worth EGP 30,000 (over USD 4000). Though El-Husseiny recognizes Abu Ghazi’s contribution, she also hoped that he would initiate a sustainable pattern of cooperation between the ministry and the independent scene. The following minister, Shaker Abdel Hamid (in the office November 2011-May 2012), cut the ministry’s contribution to El-Fan Midan by two thirds, while his successor Mohamed Saber Arab (May 2012-May 2013), withdrew the funding completely. Today, El-Fan Midan relies on donations from individuals and institutions.

“The ministry needs a complete restructure of ideologies and mindsets,” comments Abu Ghazi, while El-Husseiny adds that “we need a new cultural policy developed through a dialogue between the ministry and people involved in culture.”

As the ministerial changes continue, on 7 May 2013, Alaa Abdel-Aziz became the sixth minister to enter the office since January 2011. “The faces change, increasingly for the worse, while the core vision is not there to begin with,” Nehad Selaiha, Egypt’s renowned professor of the theatrical arts and theatre critic told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Abdel-Aziz’s appointment was received with a strong opposition from Egypt’s artists and intellectuals, who organized a protest march to the Ministry of Culture on 14 May. They demanded removal of Abdel-Aziz, expressing that his support for the Muslim Brotherhood was an example of the dangerous “brotherhoodisation” of Egyptian culture. Moreover, many of the artists said Abdel-Aziz lacked the experience and academic and artistic profile needed for the job.

Culture in the hands of people

“The only hope is in the people taking culture to their own hands. In the theatre sector, several troupes are already setting up independent organizations and NGOs. We need more such initiatives,” Selaiha says.

Inspired by Egypt’s revolution, several new forms emerged, such as graffiti, installations, and the ever-increasing number of short films and documentaries by emerging young filmmakers. Many of those productions are supported and promoted by the artistic and cultural institutions active in Egypt, or even by the foreign diplomatic institutions which extend support to the young Egyptian artists while trying to promote their own culture. Again, only a few initiatives have managed to attract the ministry’s attention.

“The government’s detachment from people is our heritage,” says Ahmed Al-Attar, the founder and director of the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF). Last April, the second edition of D-CAF, a dynamic festival bringing a wide range of local and international artistic events to the streets and indoor venues across Cairo’s downtown, was not supported by the Ministry.

“The ministry supported us in the festival’s first edition, but this year we were told that they need to allocate their budget to other activities, to give equal chances. Of course it’s fair but at the same time questions culture ministry’s planning and sustainability policies, especially when the initiative, such as D-CAF, is widely recognized as valuable,” Al-Attar told Asharq Al-Awsat.

Also in April, a large scale art project, Hal Badeel (Alternative Solution), took place at Townhouse Gallery’s factory space last April. Running on zero-budget and supported by volunteers, Hal Badeel gathered large number of audiences.

Haytham Nawar, young independent visual artist and an initiator of the first digital arts festival, Di-Egy Festival 0.1, was offered one venue and printed material from the ministry. Nawar comments that “the cooperation with the ministry is possible only if they are contributors but not partners. This way they do not exercise control over the event.”

Amro Salah, founder and director of the successful Cairo International Jazz Festival, which celebrated its fifth year last March, agrees with Nawar.

Salah adds that he couldn’t cooperate with the ministry as the terms presented by the government were against the festival organization and its artistic vision. This year however, Salah received symbolic financial support from the Ministry of Tourism.

“The change is coming, very slowly,” comments Al-Attar. “We have to keep pressing and demanding. One thing is clear: demographically, the young generations are very strong and they will eventually have the advantage.”

“We should all go on fighting and keep pressuring the ministry to share the budget and culture. This is our money—not money of the new Muslim Brotherhood’s regime—and people have a right to culture subsidized by the ministry,” Selaiha concludes.

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