Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 September 2005
Issue No. 760
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

In the aftermath of Beni Sweif

Hala Halim gauges the response of Egyptian intellectuals to the Beni Sweif tragedy

Click to view caption
The audience at the Beni Sweif Cultural Palace on the fateful night

Beni Sweif, 5 September, 2005. At any other time or place, a fire that claims over 30 lives and leaves many injured during a performance at a cultural centre -- state-owned or not -- would be counted an appalling tragedy, speaking volumes about criminal negligence, instantly calling for due justice to take its course. To register the coordinates of the intellectuals' response to the disaster vis- à-vis the state and its cultural policies in the Egypt of September 2005 is not to stride past the essential tragedy and the urgency of redressing it. The Beni Sweif tragedy joins a long line of man-made disasters wrought by similar causes that affect the lives of all citizens, one example being the Upper Egypt train that caught fire in 2002 (this quite apart from the burning of state-owned cultural edifices in the past, such as the old Cairo Opera House, about three decades ago, and the Musafirkhana in 1998). It is, rather, that the concerted campaigns of artists, writers and activists demanding a full investigation into the incident and an overhaul of all the conditions and structures that led to it should be read in the context of the reinvigoration of the opposition in the build up to the presidential elections of 7 September.

Official responses were initially in keeping with the well-worn pattern of offering up an easy scapegoat. At first, the authorities tagged responsibility for the entire incident on a candle dropped on stage towards the end of the performance. Later, they went on to arrest eight minor officials from Beni Sweif, keeping them in custody on charges of negligence and/or second-degree murder, pending investigation. Meanwhile, the testimonies of members of the audience and of relatives of the deceased are making it into the media via the efforts of campaigners. There is, for example, the eye-witness account of Ibrahim El-Forn, a theatre director who was in the audience: about the theatre being packed beyond capacity; a fire that spread from the candle in question to paper used in the décor, turning into a full-fledged conflagration on contact with an air-conditioning cable dangling from the ceiling; the disappearance of all but one of the Beni Sweif Cultural Palace employees present; breaking into a far-off room to get hold of a few fire extinguishers; the hour or so it took the first fire engine to arrive; the wait of about two hours before an ambulance showed up, and so on.

El-Forn's account was published in Rose El-Youssef (10-16 September, 2005), having been submitted to the magazine by a fact- finding committee formed by the Association for the Studies and Training of Independent Theatre Troupes (ASTITT); this is one of several such committees the association has formed to deal with the Beni Sweif calamity, including ones for contacting the media, raising funds for the medical treatment of the injured and finding lodgings for their relatives from other towns, and coordinating efforts with other campaigners. Likewise, at a special meeting held by Writers and Artists for Change (WAC) in the offices of Miret publishing house on 10 September, Tayseer Samak, the sister of theatre critic Nezar Samak, who died in Beni Sweif, bore witness to the scene after the event. She spoke of the dead lying uncovered, the attempts to deliver the victims to their people in plastic bags, the relatives being attacked by riot police (the latter also echoing El-Forn's statement), subsequently making similar statements on the Orbit satellite channel on 12 September. WAC is one of several independent groups formed along lines not dissimilar to the Kifaya ("Enough") movement in the past year preceding the presidential elections.

But ASTITT and WAC are by no means alone: the multifarious campaign involves, among others, Youth for Change; the Egyptian Writers' Union; a group of Alexandrian intellectuals who issued a statement on 11 September demanding, among other things, a full investigation of the accident, pensions for the families of victims, that all state-owned cultural centres be inspected for safety following international standards; students from the Academy of Arts (an institution that lost a number of students and one professor in Beni Sweif) who met with the Minister of Culture to raise a number of their demands; a group of Cairene writers who, together with WAC, filed a complaint demanding an investigation into the responsibility of the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Health, and Beni Sweif Governorate, to the public prosecutor; an ad hoc committee of lawyers working in coordination with WAC to follow up on the legal procedures; not to mention commemorative events such as that held at the French Cultural Centre in Cairo on 13 September, and another to be held at the Hanager Arts Centre next week.

The Beni Sweif disaster has prompted a re- examination of the dynamics of the relationship between intellectuals and state cultural policies. The starting point is the Ministry of Culture-run "Cultural Palaces", a structure that had its heyday in the Nasser years, when its primary task was to spread artistic appreciation among the "masses" in the provinces. Nehad Abul-Enein, who has worked for years as actress in the cultural palace-system, laments the decline of an institution that produced a generation of first- rate actors and directors but more recently fell prey to Ministry of Culture policy changes. The ministry, she says, has starved the palaces of funding, so much so that theatre amateurs have had to put on performances on budgets as low as LE500, their disbursement often long-delayed. Yet the troupes and their mentors continued their labour of love, making a point of putting on performances in the public squares of Upper Egyptian towns, like Assiut and Beni Mazar, where fundamentalists had burned down the theatres. Those who run the cultural palaces nowadays, in Abul-Enein's view, are bureaucrats who have little to do with culture, with only a few showcase centres, functioning as venues for festivals, receiving any attention. Theatre critic Abla El-Roweini concurs, describing the policies of the past few years as espousing a "culture of shows and festivals", one that turned the Cultural Palaces into a forum for the political discourse of the ruling party. Like Abul-Enein, El-Roweini, one of the writers who met with the public prosecutor, demands a full review of existing state cultural policies and structures.

An abiding concern, this was brought to the fore before Beni Sweif, in the context of the presidential elections. Writing in Akhbar Al-Adab (issue of 4 September, 2005), novelist Mahmoud El-Wardani set the activism of WAC, of which he is a member, in the context of the vicissitudes of the state's relationship with intellectuals and their oppositional stance since the 1952 Revolution. Arriving at the past few years, he argues that what fuels the WAC, most immediately, is the government's withdrawal of whatever semblance of freedom of expression it had granted writers and artists as allies in the battle against fundamentalist terrorist activities, a battle it considers it has won. The evidence for this, he suggests, is the total absence of any cultural plans from the programmes of the ten candidates running for the presidential elections of 7 September.

While the margin of democracy may appear to be expanding, this is in large measure the result of an increasingly vocal activism. The fact that students of the Academy of Arts demanded and were granted a visit to their institution by the Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni on Monday, when he responded to their questions about the Beni Sweif tragedy (in what actually proved a sedate, non-confrontational meeting) is quite uncommon. The requests made by the students, which the minister announced his approval of at the meeting -- a full investigation into the causes of the tragedy; a collage of works by their deceased colleagues, to be performed at the forthcoming Experimental Theatre Festival (ETF); a week of theatrical performances to be held in a state-owned theatre in the name of the victims of Beni Sweif, with the profit going to bereaved families; that 5 September be named the annual day of Egyptian theatre -- mostly overlap (a possible exception being the ETF, the cancellation of which some are clamouring for) with those of other campaigners such as the WAC.

At the WAC meeting on Saturday it was also decided that a number of members should meet with the public prosecutor again on 14 September, that WAC should issue a statement about the disaster on the same day as well as participating in a press conference held jointly with ASTITT at the Press Syndicate. But what was quite indicative was the proposal discussed for creating an independent association of people working in the field of theatre, one that would afford privileges as close as possible to those offered by the syndicate, given that several theatre critics who died in Beni Sweif were working on the fringe, in one more instance of a possible alternative to official structures. Also interesting at the WAC meeting was the advice given by a member of the committee of lawyers working with the group, Abdel-Mohsen Shalash, on the best route to achieving the required aims. His explanations of where provisions in the law allow for the campaigners' demands and those instances in which their objectives can be achieved only through the exertion of pressure and the mobilisation of public opinion (the latter as in the case of designating the victims martyrs and hence obtaining pensions for their families) were instructive in the minutiae of rights campaigning.

There is a sense in which 5 September is becoming emblematic of a moment of change, but perhaps one should not hastily expect big practical strides to be taken in the name of that tragedy. There is something to be said for the note of caution that artist Adel El-Siwi, spokesman of WAC, sounds. For El-Siwi, "there is an aspect to the overwhelming emotions in response to the Beni Sweif accident, which was tragic by any standard, that may prove short-lived; but what will last will be the insights into the arbitrariness and insecurity of our reality. The near-simultaneity of the re-election of President Mubarak and this accident has brought people closer together: the shared sense that those in power are more concerned with defending their seats than with people's lives has brought everyone closer together."

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