Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

The challenge ahead

The appointment of a new minister of culture has stirred mixed reactions. Nevine El-Aref reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Abdel-Wahed Al-Nabawi, head of the National Library and Archives, replaced Gaber Asfour as minister of culture in the limited cabinet reshuffle announced on 5 March. Gaber had held the post since July 2014.

Al-Nabawi was first appointed head of the National Library and Archives in September 2010. During his tenure a new headquarters for the national archive was established in Al-Fustat, and an ambitious project to digitize the state’s archival holdings launched. Al-Nabawi also served as secretary of the Arabic branch of the International Archives Council.

Al-Nabawi was dismissed from his position during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency. Rumours circulated that Al-Nabawi had been sacked for refusing to hand over documents relating to the Muslim Brotherhood and its founder Hassan

Al-Banna to Morsi’s minister of culture, Alaa Abdel-Aziz.

Al-Nabawi told Al-Ahram Weekly that he is keen to mobilise his ministry to support a wide range of development projects and create space for a new generation of creative artists to show their work.

Improving the performance of the ministry’s Culture Palace Section was among his priorities, since it is the arm of the ministry that presents cultural events across Egypt’s provinces.

His appointment provoked speculation that Asfour was sacked because of several widely publicized disputes with Egypt’s religious establishment, headed by Al-Azhar. Al-Nabawi is a tenured professor of history at Al-Azhar University.

He denies that Ahmed Al-Tayeb, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, had pushed for his appointment.

“Yes, I am a staff professor at Al-Azhar University, but I do not have any kind of personal relationship with Al-Tayeb,” says Al-Nabawi. “He knows my name, of course, but I’ve only met him on a single occasion.”

Nor, says Al-Nabawi, was there any rupture between the Ministry of Culture and Al-Azhar under Asfour. He points out that Al-Tayeb and Asfour worked closely together with intellectuals from various backgrounds and religious scholars to produce the Azhar “Document for Basic Freedoms.”

Not everyone is convinced. Asfour’s supporters insist his dismissal was a result of his disputes with Al-Azhar, not least over the latter’s ban on the depiction of prophets. They also complain about the “insulting” manner of Asfour’s dismissal.

Like other ministers involved in the reshuffle, he did not receive any advance notice of his sacking.

Being a professor of contemporary history at Al-Azhar University is another reason for the controversy over Al-Nabawi’s appointment. Intellectuals consider such a selection as “a conciliation with Al-Azhar” and an attempt to gain a large segment of Salafis and Al Azhar scholars with whom Asfour embarked on several battles.

“The authority assigned a professor of history and an employee at the ministry of culture specialized in archives to hold Egypt’s culture portfolio in an attempt to avoid any problems concerning specific issues and concepts that Asfour mooted during his tenure,” political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan was quoted. He continued that Egypt’s cultural movement and the powers of intellectuals are so expanded of late that a minister could not limit it whatever his ideological tendencies are.

“The situation is not one that requires a mediator between Egypt’s cultural and religious institutions,” insists Al-Nabawi.

“I think everyone agrees our cultural and religious discourses are both in urgent need of renewal.”

Culture, Al-Nabawi believes, is the “soft power of the state” and should be used to convert enemies into friends. “This requires time and effort,” he says. “Changing people’s thoughts and traditions of not an easy task and cannot be accomplished overnight.

“I am not just an archivist, as some are trying to suggest,” he says. “I am a cultured person who enjoys good relations with many intellectuals and with the ministry’s officials and heads of its different sectors.

“A minister,” he adds, “should be 80 per cent a politician and 10 per cent an administrator.”

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