Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1235, (26 February - 4 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Renewing discourse

Nevine El-Aref spoke to Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour about the challenges ahead

Renewing discourse
Renewing discourse
Al-Ahram Weekly

Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour began his second tenure in Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb’s second cabinet last June. Following the parliamentary elections, to start next month, the whole cabinet will resign. Over seven months Asfour’s mission has been to develop cultural structures in Egypt, cooperating with the ministries of education, higher education, youth and sports, endowments, antiquities and tourism as well as the planned National Information Centre to spread political and religious as well as cultural awareness and to develop the attendant discourses. Near the end of the time allowed him, Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to Asfour in his office at the Supreme Council of Culture, Cairo Opera House grounds, to find out how much he has achieved.

Can you tell us about the role of the Ministry of Culture in renewing the cultural, political and religious discourses to counter the radical Islamist thought now spreading both at home and across the world?

Reform and renewal of religious discourse is the most critical cultural mission at the current stage. It is a difficult mission that the ministry cannot accomplish alone. It requires serious cooperation, within the framework of a government strategy, with the Ministry of Endowments and Al-Azhar, as well as cultural institutions and ministries involved in different cultural facets of civil service. The way to renew religious discourse is to provide people with correct religious teachings stressing moderate Islam, which exhorts respect and recognition of other belief systems, and it is best to argue and reason with people rather than suppressing them, highlighting the fact that doctrinal positions are ultimately opinions that may be right or wrong so long as they are work of humans. If we are able to convince the Ministry of Endowments with its preachers and Al-Azhar with its different departments and university of this, we can make concrete accomplishments, but convincing them is not a task that can be achieved overnight. It requires the reform of a whole nation’s culture. It requires time and effort, years of exertion.

But why is it that religious thought have such a strong influence on people? Why do they affect people more than other aspects of culture?

For the simple reason that the government made a point of persecuting intellectuals and favouring the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Islamist groups for many years. In 1972 the late president Anwar Al-Sadat allied himself with the MB’s third Supreme Guide Omar Al-Telmesani, and from then on the government welcomed Islamist groups, especially the MB, at the same time turning its back on other political parties. This policy paved the way to Islamist forces spreading and taking root. You can only admire the efficiency of the MB, its incidence rate in the community and the social solidarity institutions it founded, because it was never a religious so much as a political group with a major economic dimension to it, and the result was that by the end of the 30 years of former president Hosni Mubarak’s tenure the MB’s economic institutions had reached the top of the economy, something no other private-sector institution managed. They also penetrated government institutions and trade unions.

Does the Ministry of Culture include MB members?

Absolutely, yes. There are sleepers. Under Mubarak the MB placed many members within government institutions. The process began under Sadat and was accelerated under Mubarak. The sleepers we have managed to discover have been alerted but there are others, and they are very cautious now because they know the ministry is looking out for them. Print press workers who would censor words or phrases out of books, for example, have been stopped. But there are others like them and they will seize any opportunity to start doing it again.

What are some of the ministry’s initiatives to renew religious discourse and how are they not (as some claim) preaching to the converted?

There have been several initiatives. One was selecting the seminal reformist religious scholar Sheikh Mohamed Abdou (1849-1905) as the figure of the year at the 46th Cairo International Book Fair, which was a great opportunity to deliver a message of renewal with regard to cultural and political as well as religious discourse, something the fair endeavoured to do through making numerous intellectuals present whose views on the last four years should contribute to raising awareness in every domain. The performance of the National Theatre’s opening ceremony, the play Bahlam ya Masri (I’m Dreaming, Egyptian), which dramatises the life of Sheikh Rifaa Al-Tahtawi, the Egyptian writer, teacher, Egyptologist and renaissance intellectual who wrote about western cultures in an attempt to bring about reconciliation and understanding between Islamic and Christian civilisations. There is also the Ahalina (Our Families) project carried out by the Culture Palaces Authority, which aims to make theatre and music as well as film screenings available in isolated villages and remote provinces, together with mobile libraries.

As to preaching to the converted, I agree that in case of the Book Fair the ministry is addressing intellectuals and people of higher cultural standards, but with Bahlam Ya Masri and Ahalina that is not the case. The play can be seen on television by anyone, even those who cannot read and write, while the project is specifically geared to the masses. Another initiative that addresses everyone is a major TV series on Mohamed Abdou, a project the ministry is undertaking in collaboration with the Egyptian Radio and Television Union. The ministry will not supply the budget, which will come from sponsors, but it will provide the script. In addition, the private television channel OnTV asked to screen director Khaled Galal’s performances at the Creativity Centre and the ministry agreed to allow it to, free of charge.

Why is it that some people believe that the El-Sawy Culturewheel, for example, is doing more for culture than the ministry even though the ministry has cultural palaces all over the country?

El-Sawy Culturewheel is different from the ministry. It offers a commercial service with artistic taste. It does not have a flabby administrative structure like the ministry and it is not tied down by fossilised laws and rules made dozens of years. All that guarantees its success. By contrast, more than 85 per cent of the ministry’s budget goes to employees’ salaries. The citizen’s annual share of the ministry’s gross product is only LE2,80. That’s PT16 monthly.

What about the film industry? Original copies of films owned by the ministry are said to have disappeared.

Within weeks, the cabinet will have approved a decision to return the original copies of Egyptian films to the Ministry of Culture wherever they may be. The film industry is coming back to the ministry and the Cinema Holding Company will no longer oversee it. The withdrawal of the government from film production was a big mistake. It opened the door to bad film which have mired tastes. It is not necessary to return the cinematic institution to its original strategy and role but ministry productions could play a role in refining tastes and struggling against commercialism.

Is the Ministry of Culture cancelling censorship of films?

Nobody said so. That is not true. There is an illusion that censorship only exists in Egypt but in fact it exists in every country around the world. The difference is that it is carried out by intellectuals and has a strategy that differentiates between age groups. The ministry is reforming the concept and structure of censorship to make it so, but it is not cancelling censorship.

Does that mean there will be no censorship of scripts?

Censorship of scenarios is a self-evident matter.

What about the government theatre and its development?

Development of the government theatre is the ministry’s pilot project but it is being carried out step by step. For example, the National Theatre in Al-Azbakiya is the first stop on a long journey of development. It will be transformed into a private entity with its own independent budget and open administrative echelon, but this scheme is to start in July with the new fiscal year. If it proves successful the initiative will be applied to all government theatres.

What do you mean by an “open administrative echelon”?

I mean that for the first time the theatre will be allowed to undertake joint ventures with private-sector theatres. This will be implemented through the theatre’s board. Apart from that, the ministry is to revive the International Experimental Theatre Festival but under a new name, the International Modern and Experimental Theatre Festival, in order to broaden the range of plays to include. The Night Traveller and Laila and the Madman will spearhead the National Theatre Festival starting on 10 August. Work on the  Al-Samer Land project in 6 October City, on the other hand, has already begun. The 11-story complex will house several cinema screens and theatre stages. It will also be home to the National Circus, which will be moved from Agouza. University theatres, what is more, are resuming their former activities – and the ministry will provide what moral and technical support is required. In addition, through the Cultural Development Fund the ministry is organising competitions in different professional domains like acting, directing, producing, and set design.

What is the plan of action for the cooperation protocols signed between the Ministry of Culture and other ministries? Are they (as the press has claimed) “a waste of paper”?

Not at all. The problem is that the press does not promote the ministry’s activities, especially those in the provinces. For example, according to the agreement with the Ministry of Religious Endowments, clerics were sent to cultural palaces across the country in an enlightenment mission where they preach a religious discourse that supports the notion of a civil state, freedom, justice and enlightenment. Seminars and discussions have been held with clerics and intellectuals addressing controversial issues. We have worked with the Education Ministry to transform curricula into plays that can be performed on school stages. School excursions to museums were organised, so were replica exhibitions in schools.

The Ministry of Culture distributes books covering the full gamut of culture and the arts to school and university libraries. At LE25 for school and LE50 for university students, low-cost passes providing a year’s ccess to government theatres, culture palaces and cinemas are also provided. We are trying hard to make culture available to everybody everywhere in the country. But sometime they is dereliction in ministry institutions in villages because of corruption in the Culture Palaces Department, which we finally apprehended. I am pretty sure that the innocent, honourable people there will prove successful in the end.

Can you tell us more about the corruption you uncovered?

I have only discovered corruption in the Culture Palaces but with the help of the Administration Control Authority (ACA), all corruption will soon be revealed. Due to my experience I could easily recognise which sections of the ministry are active, which not. Asking for help from the ACA to find out the reasons behind the idleness in some sections, I realised that one Cultural Palace library had been transformed into a chicken pen while employees put down the names of their relatives and friends as performers in order to get bonuses for the government. These are just two examples. We also realised, with the help of the Administration Council of the Culture Palaces Department that the engineering department there includes a large number of corrupt people who took bribes in order to let six specific contractors monopolise all department work. The case is now with the Public Fund Prosecution.

People claim that the Supreme Council of Culture committee members always organise a lobby to ensure that certain predetermined names get the state awards. How do you oversee the voting process?

I was not the one to put together the oversight strategy, it was former minister of culture Emad Abu Ghazi when he was offered the portfolio in March 2011. He erected a large LCD screen in a meeting room adjacent to that of the members, through which journalists can follow the voting live.

What have you done about the ministry’s infrastructure and the Cinematheque project to digitalise Egyptian films?

We have developed those parts of the ministry’s real estate that had fallen into disrepair, and the Cinematheque project—in collaboration with France—is finally starting. The project was to be launched in 2010 but it has been delayed due to the separation of the ministries of culture and antiquities. The truth is that I am totally against this separation.The job of both ministries is to conserve and protect Egypt’s cultural heritage whether tangible or intangible. So they should be unified.

Is it true that the Ministry of Antiquities is providing part of the Ministry of Culture’s budget?

According to a presidential decree, the Antiquities Ministry is to give 10 per cent of its income to the Cultural Development Fund (CDF). We sympathise with the lack of funds that the Ministry of Antiquities is facing but they had promised to pay in January and we are waiting. If they cannot pay that is fine but the decree must be annulled.

What about the repetition of titles printed and published within the different sections of the ministry?

This problem has ended for good. According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) treaty, which the ministry signed, all copyright is protected and no one can publish a book without the approval of its writer. Replica editions of books will be confiscated, in fact the General Egyptian Book Organisation headed Ahmed Megahed has already confiscated many such editions during this year’s Book Fair. A committee to review all published titles in every section of the ministry was tasked with eliminating repetition, but besides that every ministry department that undertakes publication now has a specific job description. GEBO is the main publishing department of the ministry. The National Translation Centre will now only translate books, not publish them. Dar Al-Kotob will only publish history books, and so on.

How would you evaluate your work in the last seven months?

Look, when I was appointed I was assigned the task of laying the foundations for a proper cultural strategy, developing the methods to implement it and restructuring the ministry. Next month the Central Agency for Organisation and Administration at the Planning Ministry will approve the new structure, which is complete. Protocols with other ministries have been signed and put into action, and ministry directors with problems replaced. Regretfully that still leaves us with a major issue: 90 per cent of the ministry’s employees are not qualified to work with cultural issues. They ended up in the ministry by accident. What to do about this? Well, I established a new institute within the scheme of Egypt Art Academy named the Cultural Administration Institute whose first academic year will start in September 2015. It will teach undergraduate students administration, the ethics and skills of cultural administration, to enable them to work in the ministry of culture. And that institute will be the only source of recruitment from then on, just like the Faculty of Education for the Ministry of Education.

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