Ever since Islamists entered Egypt’s social and political arena two and a half years ago, they have considered themselves authorized to impose their views on many aspects of daily life. Under their guardianship, Egyptian art, representing the country’s cultural identity, has been subjected to a series of attacks. After the appointment of Mohamed Mursi as Egypt’s president and the official entry of the Muslim Brotherhood, along with Salafis, into the country’s politics, the situation became increasingly difficult.
Last year, the country was dragged into severe social, political and economic mayhem, while Egypt’s arts and culture scene came under intensified aggression. In August 2012, Mursi’s administration banned the import of a history book, A History of the Modern Middle East by Martin Bunton and William Cleveland, failing to cite a reason for this decision. In September that year, a Salafi sheikh named Abdallah Badr attacked actress Elham Shahin on television, saying that “she is cursed and she will never enter heaven.” In October, a concert organized in Minya to affirm the unity of Muslims and Copts was stopped by a group of Salafists.In April, Bassem Youssef, the prominent host of the satirical news program El-Bernameg and who is often called Egypt’s Jon Stewart, was accused of insulting President Mursi and Islam.
That trend has continued this year. In April, Bassem Youssef, the prominent host of the satirical news program El-Bernameg and who is often called Egypt’s Jon Stewart, was accused of insulting President Mursi and Islam. The following month, a Salafi MP described ballet as “the art of nudity”. The list of attacks by the Islamists on Egyptian culture over the past year has been endless. And while Salafis orchestrated most of the verbal and physical assaults, the president and the Muslim Brotherhood never opposed their actions.
What has become clear is how the previously politically marginalized Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis used their newly acquired power to redirect Egypt’s destiny, as well as its cultural advancements. Although the artists and intellectuals fought back—they joined protests opposing the “Brotherhoodization” of the country and reached out to legal authorities when directly attacked—the fast-spreading pressure of the Islamists on all sectors of life was supported by the legislative backbone that they dominated.
For the cultural scene, the biggest blow yet came with the May 7 cabinet reshuffle, when Mursi appointed Alaa Abdel-Aziz as the new minister of culture. Artists and intellectuals questioned the minister’s artistic portfolio, accusing him of strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. They demanded that he be removed just a week later. Abdel-Aziz’s first decisions took the culture scene by the storm. He began his term by firing the heads of several crucial Egyptian cultural institutions, including the General Egyptian Book Organization and the Cairo Opera House, as well as several leaders in the Fine Arts sector.
Although Abdel-Aziz never provided any direct explanation for those firings, in his interviews he frequently asserted that his actions aimed at cleansing the cultural scene from corruption and at infusing younger blood into managerial posts. In the meantime, the minister placed five members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political arm, in crucial positions inside the Ministry of Culture.
Preoccupied with his so-called cleansing mission until the moment of his resignation on July 5, the people he placed in these “purged chairs” were no younger than their predecessors. It became evident that Abdel-Aziz was merely surrounding himself with a closed net of people who were either direct supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood or were ready to revise their values for the sake of keeping positions that, for them, represented a life-changing opportunity.
Understandably, the actions taken by Abdel-Aziz provoked a series of protests, among them an on-stage strike. Artists from the Cairo Opera House halted a performance of Verdi’s Aida on May 28, for the first time in Egypt’s history. Opposing the ministerial slaughter of Egyptian culture, many artists and intellectuals resigned from their posts in key cultural institutions. (One example is novelist Bahaa Taher, who resigned from the Supreme Council of Culture.) Unresponsive to the artists’ demands, in one of the interviews the minister commented that “the artists have a right to protest. They have their vision; I have mine.”
On June 5, artists stormed the Ministry of Culture, where they began an open-ended sit-in demanding that Abdel-Aziz be removed and all his decisions be revoked. In the evenings, artists from all sectors gathered in front of the Ministry of Culture, staging artistic activities for an audience of hundreds. As the minister continued implementing his policies aimed at disassembling Egypt’s artistic scene, the protests grew in size and frequency. They quickly became one of the important warm-ups for the large-scale nation-wide protests that swept the country on June 30 and eventually led to removal of Mohamed Mursi from power.
On June 30, the protests saw an estimated 17 million people take to Egypt’s streets and squares. On that day, a protest march from the vicinity of the Ministry of Culture to Tahrir Square organized by the artists was the largest in Egypt’s history. Tens of thousands of Egypt’s artists and intellectuals of all generations—actors, filmmakers, musicians, visual artists, independent artists and movie stars—joined the march that filled the main street of Cairo’s Zamalek district, heading to Tahrir.
The removal of president Mohamed Mursi from the presidential post and the Muslim Brotherhood from the country’s leadership is certainly a major achievement of the Egyptian people. But it is only the beginning of a long process that will involve mending the damage caused by the year of Muslim Brotherhood rule, while trying to place the country on a new, democratic ground where all voices can be heard and respected.
Islamist thought as perceived by the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be the dominant currency of the country. One cannot ignore that Egypt is a country marked by over five thousand years of history, which is included within its dynamic art and culture. Egypt has been home to Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, Islamic and Western cultures and has always welcomed and adopted their wealth. This plurality is expressed through a vivid plethora of cultural testimonies, from the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities and the Museum of Islamic Art to dozens of contemporary exhibition halls, and from Sufi music and chants to the 150-year-old tradition of the opera house and stages hosting contemporary rock bands.
The versatility of culture is what shapes today’s Egypt and what is preserved in the consciousness of its people. Any attack on the country’s cultural history will be met with loud opposition from its artists, who not only serve to defend the country’s artistic wealth, but also to protect its national identity.