I saw my first theatre performance during the first week of November 1956, on the National Theatre stage. It was a day-time performance, 2pm-5pm, scheduled to be over before the British-French raids on Cairo were resumed.
It was incredibly crowded, because the performances were free, with seating on a first come first served basis. The audience was made up of secondary school students like myself, journalists, writers, housewives, peasant farmers on a quick trip to Cairo, street children, and itinerant merchants. Some were drawn by the crowds, others by advertisements published in newspapers under the headline “Theatre in battle”, which invited them to watch, free of charge, stage stars participating in the resistance against the British-French-Israeli aggression on Egypt.
Just as the Suez War established the local, regional and international leadership role of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, so it launched the July culture project, with the regime’s ability to stand up to its opponents despite a power imbalance in their favour crowning a string of accomplishments: breaking the international arms monopoly, recognising populist China, campaigning against the Baghdad Alliance, participating in the Munich Conference, declaring the constitution, closing down the detention centers, and — the centrepiece — announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal.
Both during and after the war, the lionization of Nasser filled the gap that had formed between the new regime and a whole generation of intellectuals who, all through the 1940s, had actively and courageously taken part in the revolution to come, only to end up with a military coup which, they suspected, might turn out to be no more than a variation on the theme of the Latin American military coup, which tended to put non- nationalist military regimes in place. Not until 1956 could they trust July.
As with every other field of endeavour — down to liberating the nation, in fact, the process of which relied on the slogans of various factions of the nationalist movement of the 1940s — the Free Officers who planned and executed the July coup had no specific project or plan of action for cultural life. Rather, the organization excavated the nation’s old files, seeking out social and economic reform projects that had been studied but not or not completely executed prior to the revolution. It opened its doors to everyone with a reformist idea, including those intellectuals who grew enthusiastic after Suez.
The first of these to take an initiative was Fathi Radwan, one of the students of the old Watani Party, who was to some degree impressed by the speedy progress that totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had managed to make. In November 1952, he proposed establishing a ministry of “national guidance” that would direct individuals, guiding them in how to be upright citizens and facilitating various forms of popular culture to help mobilize them around the goals of the revolution.
The ministry would also provide global public opinion as well as cultural and political circles with reliable data and statistics on Egypt. This ministry was subsequently divided into two, to merge and split up again according to circumstances: the ministries of culture and information.
Many intellectuals holding government posts that did nor reflect their interests transferred to these two institutions and ended up directing led some of their branches.
Through them, sometimes with the help of members of generation of the 1940s working outside the official framework, they tried to realize cultural dreams. They met with no opposition to speak of, even when they sought to alter the original function of the nascent cultural establishment, extending notions of “guidance” and “nationalism” to a wider expression of cultural and intellectual diversity.
This was not only because the regime did not have a cultural project of its own, but also because the popularity Nasser gained following the Suez War granted him increased self- confidence, banishing doubts about intellectuals being a troublesome bunch and fear of democracy. In the two years following the Suez victory, Egypt underwent a relative loosening- up of control, giving way to a climate conducive to the formulation of the July culture project.
Eventually, through trial and error and the building up of experience, with the democratic margins and expanding and shrinking, project acquired its features and came to rest on a stable foundation, most of which remains in place today:
Culture is a public service which raises the standards of the state and in which the state takes a wide-reaching interest. It receives public funds in order to be financially accessible to the citizens, who should be encouraged to engage with it.
It was in this context, following the Suez War, that state- funded publishing, as well as theatre, cinema, music and singing gradually expanded.
Intellectuals make up an essential faction of the soldiers of the Revolution, with their influence on the masses and the historical standing they traditionally command in Arab society, now incorporated into a nationalist liberation project. Equally, however, they require special treatment: they must be exempted from the centralized authority and granted a margin of freedom. They can express themselves individually, representing schools of thought and art, but direct involvement in politics — affiliation with a particular party, for example — is the red line they must not cross.
The July culture project was created within this moderate framework, sufficient for a renewal of national culture at this stage, providing a generation of intellectuals who absorbed the values of the period between the two revolutions (the first being the 1919 Revolution) with the opportunity to enact their vision. Creativity prospered, with a new, realistic theatre — theatre in battle — emerging.
A new generation of playwrights — Noaman Ashour, Alfred Farag, Yousef Idris, Saadeddin Wahba, and Rashad Rushdy — made its mark. So did a generation of directors, including Nabil El-Alfi, Saad Erdash, Galal El-Sharqawi, and Karam Mutawi’. Among the stars were Samiha Ayoub, Sana’ Gamil, Abdel-Rahman Abu Zahra, and Hamdi and Abdullah Gheith.
As far as international theatre was concerned, the new upsurge of activity provided for the inclusion of, as well as Shakespeare and Molière — the conventional stock — more recent currents represented by, among others, Sartre, Durrenmatt, and Brecht.
It also refueled interest in Egyptian folklore, which no one had paid attention to, with efforts collect, publish and study it, and to recast it in the form of operettas, for example.
Song production had boomed during the war when poets, composers, and singers flocked to the radio to participate. They contributed, without being invited or forced to, to strengthening the resistance. The lyricists in particular pruned away meaningless lexical ornament, creating the basis for a new kind of nationalist song into which political terminology, previously unimaginable in the context of music, found their way, generating variation in composition which now went beyond the military march. They expressed an genuine sentiments shared by the listeners, who learned the songs by heart.
In addition to songs inspired by folklore, this renewal also provided for a new wave of romance, endorsing social liberation in terms of relations between men and women.
The July culture project later expanded to include opera, symphony, ballet, the plastic arts and antiquities. Cultural centres sprouted all across the country, in villages and small towns as well as cities. The idea was to spread culture, to discover and endorse talents and enhance intellectual values.
The project reached its peak when, in 1961, the state nationalized film studios, theatres and distribution companies, together with the printing presses, establishing massive institutions for the management of all these activities which failed at their task. The policy of government hegemony over cultural life proved to be a failure compared to limited intervention.
During this period, there were two visions for the July culture project. The one, represented by Free Officer Tharwat Okasha, the first to take on the ministry of culture after its independence from the ministry of national guidance, held that the state should only intervene in strategic cultural projects, such as the establishment of art institutes, the publishing and translation of classics and the management and expansion of museums. This came to be known as the quality policy, and while it oversaw the general strategy, left tactics to individual artists and the private cultural sector, allowing initiative.
The second, represented by Free Officer Abdel-Qader Hatem, who alternated with Okasha, held that the role of the state in culture should expand to include tactical decisions tailored to the circumstances and particular political battles being fought. Where there was a battle, the Revolution should plunge in, spreading its wings and attacking its critics. Hatem was the originator of the idea of safeguarding cultural activities and establishing massive state-owned publishing houses to issue a book every six hours, as well as companies for cinematic production and film theatres, and ten theatre troupes presenting a new performance every two weeks. It was the quantity policy, and it was thought to satisfy the needs of the masses at large, who had been starved of culture for decades.
The quality policy enjoyed the patronage of Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, the second of Nasser himself.
But the problem with the quantity policy was not merely the way in which it merged culture with information in a way that placed the first in the service of the second, but that it also gave way to a culture of mobilization that sought to rally up intellectuals in support of socialist ideas without reservation, regardless of their real position, and thus failed to respect diversity.
This reinstated the situation that was in place prior to the Suez War, in which the approach of “national guidance” predominated over that of cultural pluralism. The gap between intellectuals and the Revolution widened once more. And by the time it was realized that something needed to be done about this, the autumn fruits of the Suez victory had sour.
Only the summer fruits of the 1967 defeat remained.
The writer is a historian.