Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2012
Issue No. 1081
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Artistic rights

Clearly concerned about the increasing influence of political Islamic groups, Egyptian artists and intellectuals vowed to sacrifice their lives to defend freedom of expression, reports Khaled Dawoud

The main conference hall at the Press Syndicate was packed with nearly all the big names in the Egyptian art and culture industry. Actors and actresses, poets, painters, musicians, novelists and writers all gathered on Saturday to announce the creation of the "Egyptian Creativity Front" to face what they see is growing pressure to limit freedom of expression and creativity in Egypt following the landslide victory political Islamic groups scored in parliamentary elections that concluded last week.

While leaders of Egypt's largest political Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, who won slightly less than 50 per cent of the popular vote, have issued repeated statements asserting that they would continue to honour freedom of expression, Egypt's artists and intellectuals were highly sceptical. The Brotherhood's record on the freedoms issue has been mixed, and the group has been involved in several attempts in the past to ban novels and movies which they deemed contrary to their interpretation of Islamic laws. The Brotherhood's vow to respect freedom of expression has also been conditional on conformity with Islamic Sharia law, which leaves the door open for censorship, according to secular intellectuals.

Adding to the fear of Egypt's generally secular intellectuals and artists was the surprising victory achieved by the more fundamentalist Islamist groups, the Salafis who are represented in the Nour Party. Salafis and more radical groups such as the Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya alone won 23 per cent of the popular vote, more than the total percentage won by all secular parties combined, from far left to the conservative right. Al-Gamaa was involved in some of the worst violent clashes against the government in the mid-1990s. They did not only target top officials and security officers, but also intellectuals and writers whose views they deemed to be contrary to Islam. Al-Gamaa claimed responsibility for the assassination of secular writer Farag Foda, and an attempt to kill prominent Nobel Prize winner, novelist Naguib Mahfouz.

More recently, Salafi leaders such as Abdel-Moneim El-Shahat, who was narrowly defeated by a Muslim Brotherhood candidate in Alexandria, has terrified Egypt's intellectuals by publicly calling for banning the novels written by Mahfouz because he alleged that they encourage loose behaviour such as drinking alcohol and using drugs. Further, El-Shahat repeatedly suggested that Egypt's Pharaonic treasures should be either destroyed or covered with wax because they were "statues banned by Islam". The Salafi leader went as far as saying that the entire "Pharaonic civilisation was rotten". In a recent television interview, El-Shahat also insisted that the issue of freedom of expression was a matter of concern to a "minority of Egyptians. How many people read Naguib Mahfouz?" he asked.

Mohamed El-Adl, a cinema producer, took the initiative with scores of other intellectuals to form the newly created Egyptian Creativity Front. He conceded that there were serious fears that freedom of expression would be restricted after political Islamic parties won the majority in parliament elections. El-Adl said that all of Egypt's intellectuals and artists were invited to take part in a march on 23 January, the same day the newly elected parliament holds its first session, in order to submit a list of demands calling for strict adherence to the respect of freedom of expression, and Egypt's long history in art production in all its forms, whether cinema, poetry, novels, painting and sculpture. The march will start from the Opera House in Zamalek to the parliament building close to Tahrir Square. It will come two days ahead of the first anniversary of the 25 January Revolution which led to the removal of former president Hosni Mubarak.

The first statement issued by the front said that Egypt's artists and intellectuals "would not allow changing the main features of the Egyptian character which has been an issue which was settled thousands of years ago, despite consecutive waves of conquerors and occupation who tried and failed to change this character." For those intellectuals, the "Egyptian character" they refer to is moderate, diverse and tolerant.

The front also stressed that those who signed the statement would not accept calls for those who disagree with Islamic rule to leave the country, as one extremist preacher suggested in a sermon delivered a few months ago. "We will not allow any hands to destroy our culture and civilisation starting with our immortal monuments and ending up with all forms of art," the statement added in a clear response to calls by people like Salafi El-Shahat to destroy or cover Pharaonic statues.

The statement said that it is Egypt's culture, heritage, novels, music and movies that guaranteed Egypt a pioneer position in the Arab world, "and we will not calm down until we restore that pioneering role."

The intellectuals and artists who gathered at the Press Syndicate also issued a number of demands including issuing laws that honour and protect freedom of expression, and other laws that "criminalise calls for banning arts and other forms of expression."

Near the end of the meeting, attendants also recited a vow in which they "swore to God to be loyal to the values of freedom, to defend freedom of creativity and thought in arts, culture and science and to defend Egypt's identity and cultural heritage in all its forms." More important the attendants vowed "to be ready to sacrifice my life as a price to my right and the right of others to express their views in total freedom."

Most of the speakers at the conference sharply criticised the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its commander Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi for allegedly "betraying the goals of the 25 January Revolution." Despite the lack of any hard evidence, the majority of speakers also repeated claims that SCAF had reached an unofficial deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to allow the latter to win a majority in parliament in return for granting the army establishment special status in the upcoming constitution. Slogans such as "down, down with military rule", were echoed many times at the meeting, together with appeals to take part in protests which liberal and leftist groups called for to mark the first anniversary of the 25 January popular revolt.

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