asks what is to become of Egypt's culture and heritage in Hisham Qandil's government
Tension and conflict have always been the essential features that defined the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Egyptian intelligentsia. In the past decades, when the MB was only a political movement, it assassinated several intellectuals and authors who opposed their radical ideas.
Now as the MB has become one of the largest and most influential movements in Egypt especially after winning the majority of parliament seats and after one of its most prominent members Mohamed Mursi has become the first elected president of Egypt, the rise of the Islamists has concerned many who are fearful of their gaining influence in art and culture. What increased such apprehension has been the position taken by members of parliament and lawyers affiliated to the MB including calling for the confiscation of the legendary book One Thousand and One Nights as well as new books such as Al-Sakkar (The Falconer) written by Samir Gharib.
Along with the even more ultra-conservative Salafis the Brotherhood have asked for sculptures in squares and streets to be covered. In Alexandria, for example they have covered the Statue of Liberation, at Al-Selsela Square overlooking the Corniche, with a black sheet because it features a semi-naked woman symbolising the mermaid trying to free herself.
They also called for the destruction of the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx.
The MB's top leader Mohamed Badie in Al-Youm Al-Sabei newspaper described soap operas shown on TV in Ramadan as a deliberate plan to waste people's time and deprive the nation of achieving piety.
In the current cabinet reshuffle carried out by Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, Minister of Culture Saber Arab and Minister of Antiquities Mohamed Ibrahim stayed on but they did not do much in the cultural and archaeological fields in the previous government.
Is this perhaps one way of saying the MB is to give less attention to culture and heritage in Egypt, which were not mentioned at all in Mursi's renaissance project? Or is this like what intellectual and poet Mohamed Abdel-Moeti Hegazi said in the early 20th century, when Ataturk cancelled the Turkish Islamic Caliphate, and intellectuals turned Egypt from the old radical regime of the Mamluks and Ottomans to the enlightenment era led by Refaa El-Tahtawi, Ali Mubarak, Ahmed Lotfi El-Sayed and Taha Hussein?
"Arts and culture are regrettably the last priorities in the programmes of all political forces, whether liberal or Islamic," poet Abdel-Rahman Youssef told Al-Ahram Weekly. But Youssef said he wished success to both ministers of culture and antiquities though he added that at the end "they will not be able to do much to the cultural and antiquities scene for several reasons. Both ministers belong to the same old administrative way of thinking. They will be operating both ministries in the same way as their processors."
Second, budgets allocated for both ministries should be increased 10 fold and more for antiquities "in order to achieve something efficient and concrete especially in the archaeological realm, as Egypt was a country to illegally export its heritage.
"Egypt's top governmental officials were top antiquities dealers and those who were arrested are only the lads of those top statesmen," Youssef pointed out adding that even though he did not have a concrete vision of how to deal with such an issue he suggested that developing strong legislation and getting rid of top official in question could save Egypt's heritage from any further theft and smuggling.
As for culture Youssef sees that a strong statesman fully aware of the importance and value of culture has to take it upon his shoulders the responsibility of creating a good cultural system and to put culture atop all priorities. He also has to let people feel the importance of culture in their life through providing decent theatre, art and good quality of books with appropriate prices and so on. "Culture is not more important than bread and food but food cannot build or create a rational person," said Youssef who explains that a human being is a combination of body, spirit and mind, which needs to be nourished with food, religion and thoughts. "Without nourishing people's minds through good thoughts and culture a man could be transformed into a monster and this is what happened during the era of the toppled president Mubarak."
"We should not succumb to the status quo," asserted Youssef pointing out that the decline of cultural, intellectual and aesthetic levels in Egypt in the previous decades "led to several problems we are facing now such as the inappropriate practice of political rights and the exploitation of religion to achieve gains."
Intellect and writer Youssef Qaeed sees that President Mursi is less interested in culture. He told the Weekly that since he became Egypt's president Mursi did not mention the words culture, thought or art in any of his speeches. He did not quote a verse of any poem of Ahmed Shawqi or Hafez Ibrahim or a novel or a tidbit of wisdom found in Egypt's folk heritage.
In his speeches Mursi did not highlight Egypt's culture and role in building civilisation and did not talk about the freedom of creativity and thoughts.
Badie, Qaeed continued, in Al-Youm Al-Sabei described those who worked in Ramadan soaps as "free devils".
"Mursi's position towards archaeology is unclear but he has an adverse position towards art, culture and creativity," said Qaeed.
Qaeed told the Weekly that arresting a Shia in Mansoura because of his religion and putting another youngster in jail because he was walking with his fiancé holding hands on the street are raising much concern over human freedom.
Two groups -- the Creativity Association and the National Party of Creativity -- have been organised by intellectuals to monitor any attacks on the freedom of creativity but not much else.
Poet Youssef Shaaban said that the relationship between the MB and culture is almost not existent "and has a large degree of aggression". "What gave me such an impression are the magazines they published in the 1950s which were restricted by very conservative traditions." And now, Shaaban said, their recent performance in the parliament -- removing and confiscating books -- is a good indication of their opinion towards the freedom of creativity and culture.
Mohamed Salmawy in his column published in the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper titled 'The president and hostility towards intellectuals' Salmawy said the exclusion of prominent artists and writers nominated by the Egyptian Writers Union (EWU) from the Constituent Assembly was evidence of the MB's attitudes towards the arts. He also criticised Mursi for ignoring intellectuals and writers in his first public speech, preferring instead to praise tuk tuk and taxi drivers.
Salmawy also wrote in his column that after a month of being Egypt's President Mursi had excluded the EWU from a meeting held with representatives of the 24 professional syndicates.
The EWU issued a petition on the incident and described it as indicating a poor relationship between the MB and Egypt's intellectuals and hostility towards them.