Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2011
Issue No. 1037
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

An uncertain welcome

Despite his success in launching the Al-Sawy Culture Wheel, Mohamed El-Sawy, the newly appointed minister of culture, has not been received with open arms, reports Nevine El-Aref

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Mohamed El-Sawy

When the area below the 15 May Bridge in Cairo was converted from a rubbish dump to a cultural centre back in 2003, people thought the initiator of the idea was a genius. Since then the Al-Sawy Culture Wheel has become a venue for daily events, concerts, seminars, plays, poetry and even children's activities.

As a result, when Mohamed El-Sawy, founder of the Wheel, was nominated for the post of minister of culture many people were thrilled, hoping that he could replicate the success nationwide.

Visual artist Magd El-Seguini was enthusiastic about the choice of El-Sawy, for example, describing him as an intellectual brought up in a cultural environment and having a father who had earlier been a minister of culture. With the help of the country's artists and intellectuals, El-Sawy would be able to lead the ministry into a new era, El-Seguini said.

However, other observers have expressed concerns that government service could negate El-Sawy's past achievements and ruin his future, making public their doubts about why he has accepted to participate in a government that has not established its legitimacy among all Egyptians.

El-Sawy's nomination and later his appointment have not got down well with all the country's intellectuals and artists, who believe that the success of the Wheel does not constitute a qualification for the post. "Owning a supermarket does not make one qualified to be minister of trade," said art critic Osama Afifi, adding that the Wheel "is targeted at the general public and does not rise to intellectual criteria."

Similarly, Hoda Wasfy, director of the Al-Hanager Theatre, said that though she was sure that El-Sawy was a decent person, his experience of running the Wheel did not necessarily qualify him to be minister of culture.

Two days after El-Sawy took up the job, protesters picketed the ministry building overlooking the Nile Corniche in Zamalek in Cairo to criticise the appointment, saying that El-Sawy had not taken an important part in the Egyptian cultural scene.

The protesters highlighted censorship at the Wheel, which they feared could extend to the ministry's activities under El-Sawy's leadership. Among the criticisms made was that El-Sawy had possible connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, and that these could affect his policies while minister.

The protesters noted that El-Sawy had not allowed ballet to be performed at the Wheel, for example.

Filmmaker Mohamed Hammad said that El-Sawy had refused to screen the film Central (Telephone Station), which he had directed, because it did not conform to the Wheel's guidelines. However, the film had been screened at the Alexandria Film Festival, organised by the Ministry of Culture.

Hammad called for the removal of censorship in the arts, supported by film director Mohamed Khan, who also stressed the need for freedom of expression and the removal of censorship. Khan doubted that El-Sawy would take steps in this direction, saying that when he had been on the jury of the Wheel's Short Film Festival, El-Sawy had prohibited one of the films. He had also taken off a play at the Wheel, Khan said.

In addition to these criticisms, others hostile to El-Sawy's appointment claim that he has made contradictory statements. Four days before his appointment to the post, El-Sawy said that he was not interested in the job and that he could not be a member of a government he rejected.

El-Sawy looked tired when he met for an interview with the Weekly, though he gave his usual warm welcome. At almost eight in the evening, the ministry's Zamalek offices were buzzing with visitors, officials and employees.

El-Sawy's daily routine has not changed since he became minister, and he wakes at 7am, goes for an hour's run, and is then in his office at 8am sharp to start a working day that could end at 10pm.

His convictions have not changed either, and since he took up the job he has been saving electricity, for example. Sitting in a dimly lit office, he put in a few extra bulbs for the sake of the photographer, taking them out again when he had left.

"Sorry for the lighting, but we have to rationalise our consumption," El-Sawy said. "We are in a crucial period that has to be correctly handled in order to change our country for the best. I am ready to accept any criticisms and will do my best to answer all of them," he said.

El-Sawy said that he had not contradicted himself in the statements he had made. Critics had misunderstood his statements, he said.

"I did not reject Ahmed Shafik's government. I only had concerns about figures from the previous cabinet who were not respected by the people. I could not deal with these people or be their colleague. However, when they left the cabinet, I accepted the post of minister of culture. I could not have dealt with a person who had prevented the holding of honest parliamentary elections, for example," he said.

Many people had encouraged him to take up the post, however, on the grounds that he would be a trusted figure in the government.

El-Sawy seemed offended by Afifi's point of view that running the Wheel did not qualify him to be minister of culture, and he answered that the relationship between the Wheel and the cultural sphere was not the same as that between a supermarket and the Ministry of Trade.

Afifi should remember how far the programmes of the Ministry of Culture had once been from the concerns of ordinary people, he said. "With all due respect to those in the cultural sphere, where was the culture that related to people?"

In fact, El-Sawy said, the ministry's elitist policies had even succeeded in making culture hated by many people, especially young people. The Wheel, on the other hand, had succeeded in bringing culture closer to people and young people.

"Instead of sitting around doing nothing, young people chose to go to the Wheel, where they could listen to music, see art exhibitions or theatre performances and films," he said. The Wheel had changed the concept of culture and its relationship to people.

"I am not claiming that I am the best or the prefect choice for the post of minister," El-Sawy added, "but I am sure that I believe in the important mission of culture and its role in serving the community."

"Anyone selected to serve Egypt should not hesitate to accept the post. Egypt's best interests remain the most important thing." The country had been stagnating for some time, he said, and the duty of the transitional government was to move ahead and foster development and growth.

"We are the servants of the nation," he stated, adding that the revolution was an opportunity to change the country. It was necessary to understand that there was more than one way to deal with a problem, El-Sawy continued. "The most important thing is to create a democratic atmosphere, in which people can express themselves freely."

However, six months, the period in office of the transitional government, is a very short period in which to achieve all this. El-Sawy agreed, but added that "with passion and hard work it could be a very successful and fruitful period."

El-Sawy said that he intended to work hard to open up opportunities to artists and creators, using all the ministry's available premises and resources. Even the cultural palaces that had been closed for safety reasons or because they had not been approved by the civil defense authorities would be pressed into service.

Performances would be given in the vacant area in front of the Beni Sweif cultural palace, now closed following a fire a few years ago. More folk dance performances would be given, more art exhibitions organised, and more films shown, not only in Cairo and Alexandria, but in every town or village in Egypt.

"I don't want to continue in the job after the end of this ministerial tenure," El-Sawy said. "I prefer to live freely without bodyguards or restrictions."

Allegations of corruption would be transparently dealt with, El-Sawy said, and he had distributed a questionnaire to all the ministry's employees. Anyone who had complaints would be able to fill in this questionnaire, the minister promising to provide a response within 30 days.

However, despite these positive noises, some critics still believe that El-Sawy's membership of an advertising agency is a further reason that disqualifies him from the job. They believe that the present government is repeating past mistakes by putting more businessman in government.

El-Sawy does not agree. "All newly appointed ministers will be obliged to submit financial reports, as well as reports from their spouses and children, for inspection. In my present role as minister of culture, I am not directing the Wheel or the advertising company. The latter business is well documented, and anyone who wants to check can do so."

Regarding allegations of censorship, El-Sawy says that "it is important to differentiate the Wheel from Egypt's culture portfolio." The Ministry of Culture is a governmental body representing the nation, he said. "It is not a one-man show, and the ministry promotes all kinds of work that reflect Egypt's diverse tastes. I will deal with everybody equally, and I will encourage all kinds of creativity."

"I would like to see the removal of censorship, unless there is a further law that regulates creativity and vulgarity in order to continue Egypt's cultural identity," El-Sawy said. The only censorship he had ever exercised at the Wheel was when an actor had used offensive words in a performance that had not been in the script.

The ministry would be carrying out its mission under the slogan "the country is ours." Cultural events promoted by the ministry would attempt to live up to this slogan and express the soul of revolution.

A last question related to the ministry's financial resources, now that the antiquities section has become an independent Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs (MSAA).

In reply, El-Sawy said that the ministry had other sources of funding, but that a presidential decree had also instructed the MSAA to give 10 percent of its income to the Cultural Development Fund. "I am sure that the MSAA will not be greedy and will not try to take this money from the Ministry of Culture," he said.

Nevertheless, Zahi Hawass, state minister at the MSAA, has told the Weekly that he intends to stop the money being sent to the Ministry of Culture, as it is needed to fund MSAA activities.

"I need to pay employees' salaries, to restore monuments and to build museums," Hawass said.

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