A questionable reincarnation
Will new leadership resuscitate the all-but-dead body of the Egyptian Writers Union, asks Rania Khallaf
Following biannual elections at the institution's headquarters last week, playwright Mohamed Salmawy's appointment as chairman of the Egyptian Writers Union (EWU) has generated not a little debate. Editor-in-chief of the French-language Al-Ahram Hebdo, Salmawy is almost the only new name on the board, with some members retaining 20-year-old positions. For a long time the union has proved ineffectual in the literary sphere, and controversy centred on whether Salmawy will manage to change that.
"I had hardly banked on this, but board members convinced me that the union was in need of new blood," the new president testifies. "They asked me to consider running for the elections, and after a long time I decided that an institution with such a tradition behind it, whatever dire straits it might be in now, was worthy of all my effort."
Founded in 1975 by such major figures as Tawfiq El-Hakim, Youssef El-Sebaie and Saadeddin Wahba, the union soon fell prey to the machinations of right-wing complacency (writer Tharwat Abaza, who was not forced to resign until 1997, following a corruption scandal, remained president for over two decades). Nor did the next president, folklorist Farouk Khorshid, who died earlier this year, manage to improve conditions. Due to both political conservatism (the board unthinkingly adopting the government line on matters internal and external alike) and administrative failure, the union remained an isolated entity, neither reflecting nor taking part in literary life.
Out of a total of 1,700 union members, the turnout on the day of the elections was 655 -- a "considerable number", according to Salmawy: "I think it's a very high percentage, when you take into account that no more than 1,075 paid their membership fees in January -- 65 per cent is rather more than most election turnouts in this country." Salmawy, who received the highest number of votes in union history (322), beat his strongest contender, Abdel-Aal El- Hamamsi (278 votes) by a considerable margin. "We're in a state of flux," he says, "and this makes me very optimistic. I think it's a good time for us to start building the union. The opportunity comes at a time," he adds, "when the country is striving for change at all levels -- change is not restricted to political or constitutional matters but permeates all of society."
Many writers have since expressed the concern that no such change will occur, however. "I don't think the elections reflected any desire for change," novelist Gamal El-Ghitani, editor of Akhbar Al- Adab, insists. "Most board members are the same, well-known names responsible for dissolution in the first place; most" -- a frequent criticism of the union, this -- "are not even writers. Which circumstances make it impossible for a respectable writer like Salmawy to achieve anything at all." Professor Milad Hanna, another prominent figure who won a seat on the board, believes the union to be "a backward organisation monopolised by a handful of unpopular writers": "Nothing will change so long as these people go on dominating the board."
Hanna's suggestion of setting up a committee -- "the leaders forum" -- to bring together high- profile writers with the object of improving conditions, he says, was not welcome. But the professor will not resign: "Instead I will stay on to watch the board from a distance." For his part El-Ghitani proposed that Salmawy should start with a general assembly meeting to discuss "a new, appropriate union law -- to make it independent of the government". But are these among the issues on the playwright's agenda?
"There are many issues," Salmawy says, "but before talking about them, one should think about the means to tackle them, because without the means, you can hardly achieve anything. The founding law of the union stipulates very clearly that two per cent of any contract signed by any writer, whether a member of the union or not, and irrespective of the medium he employs -- in addition to another five per cent of the proceeds of any book, starting 50 years after its first print -- should go to the writers' union"; this law the board has never managed to enforce. "But there are ways of enforcing laws, even if you have to go to court. I have already spoken to Ibrahim El- Moalem, head of the Egyptian Publishers Unions, and he is ready to help. Such revenues would provide us with millions of pounds, enabling us to do a lot of those things to which writers aspire -- like establishing proper headquarters for conferences. Writers were also complaining that pension rates are very low LE50-70. You'll be surprised to find out that someone like Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz receives a pension of only LE70; this is absolutely unheard of. So we will be adamant about enforcing the law to raise revenues. Once that is done, we can ask private enterprises to live up to their responsibilities towards civil institutions too."
But the agenda is nowhere as clear in the minds of the union's old guard, like El-Hamamsi. A senior board member, he has participated in union elections ever since the institution was founded; and he believes that government funds -- as opposed to a sales commission or private-sector support -- need not imply subordination or dependency: "This is a syndicate that provides its members with support -- its very raison d'être." Mohamed El-Sayed Eid, board member and head of the largely ineffectual provincial writers' committee, agreed: "Setting our differences aside, during the next stage we should be working to ensure the availability of health insurance and social benefits to board members and revitalise the union's cultural presence."
Yet it was his promise of liberating the union of state authority that drove Salmawy's campaign. According to union law (drafted by Youssef El- Sebaie who, though a well-known writer, also happened to be minister of culture at the time) the minister of culture has the power to dissolve the board and nominate a new one -- a regulation Salmawy is eager to scrap: "It's unacceptable, it has to be changed in parliament. Amendments to the law submitted to the legislative committee of parliament by the previous board have not yet been passed, and what we must do is exercise whatever pressure we can to pass them -- to ensure the union's independence. The role of the union is vital at the present historical moment, when the need for change is so pervasive." Would he permit demonstrations calling for political changes inside the union headquarters, though? Salmawy pauses. "I don't think we need demonstrations," he says. "You demonstrate when you cannot express yourself otherwise -- and most of us here can. Of course, if writers decide that we should adopt a stand on constitutional change, that is what we'll do."
In 2000, novelists Bahaa Taher and El-Ghitani resigned from the union in protest against the board's organisational failure and the then president poet Farouk Shousha's bid for closer ties with the Ministry of Culture. How does Salmawy propose to draw in rather than drive away Egyptian writers of weight, like the aforementioned two?
"The problem is that a sizable number of major writers have never applied for membership -- it was not so important for them, the union wasn't doing anything anyway. As the institution gains power," Salmawy says, "writers will be more interested in being part of it."
Will someone like El-Ghitani consider returning to the union, though? "Never," the novelist retorts. "I will waste no more time on such a desperately hopeless endeavour." Besides, El-Ghitani lets slip, secret negotiations are currently in progress among writers regarding the establishment of an alternative writers union, "a genuine body" to proceed in parallel to the other's long-drawn-out death. According to Eid, the new board deputy, however, such an action would be illegal: "This is an unrealistic idea, simply because the law wouldn't permit the existence of two syndicates for the same purpose. Those who want change should show up and make some effort in developing their union," he added. And El- Hamamsi echoed that sentiment: "There are always those who condemn the union. But did any one of them submit a reasonable reform proposal to the board; was it turned down?"
Restoring a position of leadership in the Arab Writers Union (AWU) seems to be a matter of importance for many board members. Recent Egyptian participation in AWU activities -- the country had been deprived of AWU membership for many years following the Camp David Accords -- is seen, by El- Hamamsi and others, as "one of the EWU's biggest achievements": "It was Egypt that established the AWU in 1954, and it's about time it should return to Cairo." Yet to Salmawy this is a matter of bigotry: "I personally do not believe that Egypt must monopolise leadership of the AWU. For example, the European Union is headquartered in Brussels. Despite its role and status, France never insisted it should move to Paris, did it."
Be that as it may, it is the call to disqualify those union members who are not literary writers -- a demand reiterated a countless number of times by such intellectuals as El-Ghitani -- that presents Salmawy with an intractable challenge. Some 60 per cent of the union's 1,700 members are employees of the ministries of culture and information with no literature to their name. "I don't know how they got in," Salmawy says, "but I'm in no position to get them out -- it's not their fault they were accepted. As members of the union, the union's leadership must defended their rights. It's a tricky business, potentially explosive -- it could turn into a Pandora's box -- but what we can and must do is scrutinise applications very carefully in the future."
Most younger writers boycotted the elections, yet despite his conviction that it is but "a dead body", novelist Montasser El-Qaffash went to cast his vote in favour of "the least hopeless candidates". One of the reasons behind the union's demise, he believes, is the huge number of members who have nothing to do with writing and lack any vision for literature in these critical times. "Maybe," he hazards, "real writers should take a stand."