Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1277, (7 - 13 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The culture raids

Intellectuals and cultural organisations decry raids on the Townhouse Gallery and Merit Publishing House, Ahmed Morsy reports

The culture raids
The culture raids
Al-Ahram Weekly

In a seemingly unprecedented move, within two days the authorities closed down the Townhouse Gallery and the adjacent Rawabet Theatre and raided the nearby Merit Publishing House in downtown Cairo. Ten days ago, an interagency team made up of officials from the Censorship Authority as well as representatives of the West Cairo district and the Tax Authority made a surprise inspection and shut down the Townhouse Gallery and Rawabet Theatre for administrative irregularities. During the day, a number of nearby cafes were also closed down for the same reason.

Major General Yassin Abdul-Bari, the head of West Cairo district, stated during a telephone interview with CBC channel that the decision to close down the Townhouse Gallery, located off Champollion Street, came as a result of administrative irregularities. “Among the cafes that were closed downtown was the Townhouse café which is a cultural café that includes a gallery and a library. It was shut down based on the administrative violations observed by the interagency team, including irregularities concerning its license,” Abdul-Bari said, pointing out that there is no objection to reopening the gallery and the theatre once the licensing issue is settled.
Townhouse Gallery, to which the Rawabet Theatre belongs, is a non-profit organisation established in 1998 and is one of a small number of art spaces downtown. It has contributed to supporting contemporary art and promoting up-and-coming artists on the international art scene.

“It is the first time in eighteen years that the gallery was shut down,” the Townhouse director Yasser Gerab observed.

According to eyewitnesses, the inspection team searched the offices and inspected employee IDs and office computers as well as the archival material and the artwork on display. The raid ended after employees were questioned for several hours and had their IDs photocopied before being allowed to leave.

“We were not aware of our subordination to the authority of the West Cairo district till we were told by the inspection team. Being a company and not a shop, we did not realise we were subject to district regulations, but at the same time we must succumb to them and apply for a new license so that the gallery can be opened again,” Gerab said.

The Ministry of Culture refused to comment on the issue, possibly because the Townhouse a self-owned enterprise not affiliated with the Ministry.

On the following day, policemen from a police branch in charge of enforcing censorship and arts rules, known as the Musannafat Police, raided and searched the independent Merit Publishing House, located in downtown Cairo, and arrested staff member Mohamed Zein, who was released a few hours later after interrogation. A microphone and an amplifier were confiscated from the premises during the raid.

Major-General Medhat Hashad, Assistant to the Interior Minister and head of Musannafat department, said that raid on the headquarters of Merit followed a warrant issued by the Public Prosecution after the police obtained information that it doesn’t have a publishing license. “While raiding the publishing house, the Musannafat policemen who inspected the premises found out that it doesn’t have a publishing license and also doesn’t have a license of the Publishers’ Union, which is contrary to the law,” Hashad said. “Policemen, while searching the headquarters, also found a microphone and an amplifier that are used to produce audio works which requires another license. Having such audio equipments without a license is another violation,” he explained, adding that each of the two violations is a legal misdemeanour.

For his part, the owner of Merit Publishing House Mohamed Hashem said the prosecution had not issued an indictment. “The investigation is still ongoing and the prosecution has not yet issued an indictment since last week’s raid,” he said. Hashem affirmed that the publishing house, which moved to a new office a month ago, is still open in spite of the raid and is now in the legal process of obtaining a license for the new headquarters.
Following the raid Hashem wrote on his Facebook page, “We will expose the corrupt. We will expose the executioners in Saudi Arabia and maintain our solidarity with Ashraf Fayadh [a poet sentenced to death]. We will keep on dreaming of a homeland of bread, freedom and social justice. And you will not terrorise us!”
Merit too was established in 1998 and since then has supported so many young novelists and poets for many years it was synonymous with the literary vanguard. Since then it has become a significant force on the publishing scene in Egypt. The publishing house was also a gathering place for left-leaning intellectuals and during the 25 January Revolution its headquarters in downtown Cairo were famously open as a sanctuary for protesters from nearby Tahrir Square.
***

Intellectuals as well as freedoms and rights advocates have denounced the raids and closures. Film producer and member of the Creativity Front Mohamed Al-Adl said that such actions indicate a lack of awareness of the value of culture. “If the officials were aware of the value of culture, they would support it against extremism. There is no appreciation for culture and intellectuals,” Al-Adl said, adding that such cultural organisations have been working for over 17 years without once being closed down. “The state institutions [responsible for the closure] don’t have a political vision and adopt the same approach of the preventive fist adopted in the seventies when security used to break into the social seminars,” Al-Adl said.

“The procedures that the current regime implements are a total failure,” George Ishaaq, a member of National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), put in, for his part. “The methods by which the state tries to close down the Townhouse Gallery, the Rawabet Theatre and Merit Publishing House are abortive and will increase tension especially as we are on the verge of convening the new parliament which means that the street should not be restrained.”

According to Basma Al-Hussieni, director of the Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafi), the state has been taking such measures since mid-2014. “In all the cases of prevention, intrusion or closure, legal attributions were used that seem to have nothing to do with politics like the Censorship Authority, the Tax Authority and the Manpower Authority. Each time such legal attributions subsequently turn out to be false with no irregularities in evidence,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

Lawyer and rights activist Negad Al-Boraei was even more enraged, he tweeted, “Is there a country that closes down the most important and independent theatre and gallery downtown... You became officially insane... Do you want to become China or North Korea? Just tell us”.
Moreover, in an attempt to condemn the recent action against cultural enterprises a number of cultural institutions issued a joint statement dubbed “A War on Creativity”: “During the incidents, actions were provocatively taken against these institutions under the pretext of the existence of administrative or legal irregularities which, if true, don’t in any way require the closure of any of them,” the statement reads. “This recent campaign comes in the context of imposing restrictions on artistic and cultural work after preventing in 2014 the yearly ceremony Al-Fan Midan, which was held in Abdeen Square for three years.

“It is known that most independent cultural institutions are registered as companies since the nature of their business, which requires flexibility and the ability to fund themselves, is not consistent with the associations’ laws that require licenses each time they organise a concert, theatrical performance or art exhibition. Such laws also set bureaucratic restrictions on the possibility of selling tickets or services so as to be self-sufficient. Nevertheless, these institutions meanwhile meet their outstanding legal obligations to the state be they tax or insurance,” the statement went on.

The signatory institutions called on the state to re-examine the legal status of the cultural and artistic premises and amend it. Among them were the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, the Al-Nadeem Centre, the Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Centre, the Association for Free Thought and Expression, Medrar for Contemporary Arts, Eskenderella for Cultures and Arts, the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and ASCII Contemporary Art Project.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) issued a separate statement on Tuesday last week denouncing the recent actions taken against Townhouse and Merit. “Raiding and closing down these cultural institutions days before the fifth anniversary of the 25 January Revolution point to the panic of state agencies about any space for freedom of expression, especially among intellectuals and young people,” the ANHRI statement reads. Townhouse and Merit, after all, are cultural spaces frequented by activists, artists and free speech advocates. “The attack comes as part of the campaign being waged by the security apparatus on artistic arenas as well as human rights organisations in recent months in order to suppress oppositional voices.”
The Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) too slammed what it portrayed as a “security crackdown” against independent cultural venues and activists which could threaten stability in Egypt. The party described the authorities’ raids on cultural venues in the past few days as a crackdown on freedom of expression and creativity, as well as an attack on constitutional rights that the Egyptian people fought for.

Article No. 67 of the Constitution states that “Freedom of artistic and literary creativity is guaranteed. The State shall encourage arts and literature, sponsor creative artists and writers and protect their productions, and provide the means necessary for achieving this end. No lawsuit may be initiated or filed to stop or confiscate any artistic, literary, or intellectual works, or against their creators except by the Public Prosecutor. No freedom restricting sanction may be inflicted for crimes committed because of the publicity of artistic, literary or intellectual product.”

The ESDP’s statement also said, “We do not need to remind anyone that closing down independent cultural venues in Egypt does not serve anybody except religious radicalism.”
***
Nor were these the first such attacks on creative freedom. In November, the Musannafat Police raided the Contemporary Image Collective (CIC), an independent and non-profit art organisation founded in 2004 in downtown Cairo. They accused workers at the CIC of using illegal computer software, confiscated several computers, and detained a junior employee for questioning. The same scenario happened with Zero Production, an independent production company in Cairo that supports independent filmmakers. At the time, a board member of the CIC was quoted by AP as saying, “The whole arts community is witnessing a heightened crackdown. We are advised just to stay low until after 25 January,” the board member, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said.

Al-Adl believes that such actions put pressure on people to go down to the streets on 25 January. A month ago, the interrogation of novelist Ahmed Nagi, who was acquitted a few days ago, evoked a wave of outrage among novelists, activists and NGOs who saw it as a violation of the Constitution. On Saturday a Cairo Criminal Court acquitted Nagi and the Akhbar Al-Adab editor-in-chief Tarek Al-Taher after they were accused of “publishing and writing an article with obscene sexual content that offends modesty” in the newspaper last August.
Such an incident is not the first of its kind in the domain of literary trials. Last year, novelist Karam Saber was sentenced to five years in jail on charges of “contempt of religion” owing to his short story collection Ayna Allah (Where is God). Article No. 65 of the Constitution, however, states, “Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. Every person shall have the right to express his/her opinion verbally, in writing, through imagery, or by any other means of expression and publication”.

ANHRI issued a statement in November following the arrest of Nagi saying that “restricting freedom of opinion and expression has become a recurrent matter, which asserts the Egyptian authorities’ ongoing disregard for their international obligations as well as the Egyptian Constitution regarding the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

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