Maneuvering between the Obstacles

Al-Khayal Al-Shaabi perform their Traffic dance routine during the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival in March 2013. (Mohammed Fathallah/DCAF)
Al-Khayal Al-Shaabi perform their Traffic dance routine during the Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival in March 2013. (Mohammed Fathallah/DCAF)

Egypt’s cultural scene has been struggling to survive since the 2011 revolution

Published in The Majalla

Since the January 2011 revolution, many aspects of daily life in Egypt have been directly impacted by changes taking place in the country. The world of arts and culture contributed its fair share to the process of redrawing the social and political scene, but it has also fallen prey to the many challenges that came along as a result of those changes. An amalgamation of artistic energies have been challenged continuously by several intersecting factors: budget limitations, recurring safety problems, the so-called “religious eye” that defied Egypt’s cultural identity—particularly during the year when power was in the hands of the former president Mohamed Mursi—and a cabinet filled with either the Islamist factions or their sympathizers.

The direct threat of the Islamists to Egypt’s cultural scene became most evident when Alaa Abdel-Aziz, who was the minister of culture briefly from May 5 to June 30 this year, started implementing policies that angered the artistic community. These included the unjustified dismissal of key figures from Egypt’s cultural posts, as well as his decision to infuse the Ministry of Culture with members of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the then-ruling Muslim Brotherhood. Artists accused Abdel-Aziz of a premeditated attempt at destroying Egypt’s cultural identity. Yet the most intense weeks for Egypt and for the culture scene are those that have followed the removal of former president Mohamed Mursi from power. The feeling has been intensified by the August 14 announcement of a state of emergency and a curfew, after the clearing of a pro-Mursi sit-in led to violent clashes.

However, looking back at the past two and a half years, one cannot overlook a noteworthy achievement: an ideological transformation in Egypt’s artists, many of whom have come to realize that culture and creativity should not be considered a mere luxury—that it is, in fact, a fundamental part of life for people from all social strata. The rediscovery of the idea that culture is for all has become the driving force behind several events and larger artistic projects taking place in Cairo and across many of Egypt’s governorates. One of its most successful examples, El-Fan Midan (Art is a Square), launched in April 2011. The monthly one-day festival brings a variety of artistic performances and activities to audiences gathered at Cairo’s Abdeen Square and other city squares across Egypt. The initiative of a group of independent artists and cultural activists, El-Fan Midan received support from the Ministry of Culture for the first few months of its existence but eventually had to depend fully on individual and institutional donations.

For state-run organizations, an important threshold in realizing that art should be addressing everyone came in June, when artists conducted various performances on a stage erected in front of the Ministry of Culture. They were received by an audience of hundreds from different generations and from all social classes. The performances were a response by angry artists to Abdel-Aziz’s policies, and some artists also stormed his offices and began an open-ended sit-in that only ended with removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Following those events, cultural institutions have reconsidered their roles in society and have planned their programs for the next season accordingly.

However, even the most glorious ideologies need to be supported by a sufficient budget. Since January 2011, financial constraints have been among the core concerns for the Ministry of Culture and all institutions operating under its umbrella. Over the past few decades, Egypt had proudly showed off with many lavish high-budget state-run events and festivals, mostly targeting the affluent—a small fraction of Egyptian society. These have included the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theatre (CIFET), the Cairo International Children’s Film Festival (CICFF) and the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF).

After the removal of Mubarak’s regime in 2011, CIFET and CIFF were cancelled. The then-minister of culture, Emad Abu-Ghazi, named political instability as the reason behind the festival’s suspension. Many knew, however, that budget limitations played an important role in the equation. CIFET has failed to re-materialize, while CICFF ran in 2012 only to vanish again in 2013, with no explanation from the ministry. The thirty-fifth edition of the Cairo International Film Festival that eventually took place in 2012 coincided with a three-day demonstration that condemned President Mursi’s “dictatorial” constitutional declaration and involved thousands of protesters. It was no surprise that many events at the festival had few attendees despite the low ticket prices. According to sources at the Ministry of Culture, this year’s thirty-sixth edition of the CIFF will be postponed due to the time needed for organizational and logistical improvement.

The financial constraints and lack of security have become obvious obstacles for the ministry as it tries to put on more festivals. On several occasions, institutions and events planned by the Ministry of Culture, as well as by independent cultural institutions, have had to work around days dominated by protests, demonstrations or even violent clashes.

Protests are always the reason behind cancellations at the Cairo Opera House, as its building is situated close to Tahrir Square. Moreover, the recent and particularly violent protests were also behind the cancelling of two important yearly events organized by the opera, both scheduled for August 15: the Cairo Opera House Summer Festival, and the 7th Arab Music Festival that was due to take place in Alexandria.

Organized by Misr International Films (IMF), the 4th Panorama of The European Film held in November 2011 came amid escalating violence between the army—who were then in power—and protesters on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. The violence left over forty dead and hundreds injured. The 2012 edition of the same festival took place in a far less turbulent atmosphere. However, this year’s 6th Panorama, originally scheduled for October, has already been postponed. Youssef Shazli, the general coordinator of the festival, explains that “it is impossible to plan any large event when state of emergency and curfew are in place. Many logistical aspects are on hold, [and] people outside Egypt are afraid to send us film copies under such circumstances.”

Understandably, Egypt’s cultural scene has frozen. Cultural institutions have closed their doors and cancelled all events. The independent scene has several plans in the pipeline and is expected to launch them once the curfew is removed, but the larger events and festivals need a longer preparatory process and sustained security. Maybe this temporary break in events is an opportunity to come up with interesting strategies that would make the arts and cultural scene accessible to all of Egypt’s citizens.

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