Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1403, (26 July - 1 August 2018)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1403, (26 July - 1 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Lights out for independent festivals?

A new decree ratified by the Egyptian cabinet last week imposes greater restrictions on festival organisers. Nahed Nasr takes stock

On 11 July Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli issued a decree establishing a new permanent committee whose mandate is to regulate and license festivals and cultural events in Egypt. Headed by Culture Minister Ines Abdel-Dayem, the committee also includes representatives of the cabinet and of the interior, foreign, local development, finance, tourism, antiquities, civil aviation and youth ministries as well as syndicate heads and select “experts”.  

As Al-Akhbar journalist Mohamed Qinawi noted, this wouldn’t have seemed so controversial had there not been existing committees performing the exact same role. Qinawi questions the legality of the committee in relation to film events, which presidential decree No 150/1980 stipulates should be regulated by Egyptian National Film Centre; and presidential decrees cannot legally be overturned by ministerial decrees. According to Sayed Mahmoud Sallam, writing in Al-Ahram Gate, “This decree takes no one by surprise, but it is not clear what will become of festival committees playing the same role.” But it is not as innocent as all that.

The decree states that the aim of cultural gatherings is “to develop creativity and preserve the Egyptian cultural identity”. Writing in Al-Shorouk on 16 July, the legal expert (and former deputy prime minister and minister of international cooperation) Ziad Bahaaeddin contends that the decree restricts freedom of expression: “It reflects a desire to control culture, art and creativity in ways that do not fit with the times. It will harm Egyptian culture.”

Requests for a licence can only be submitted in June, and must include a list of all invited guests. Only NGOs with “a tangible role in serving society” and private companies with over 50 per cent Egyptian ownership are eligible. For Bahaaeddin, such strictures serve no legitimate purpose like securing the attendees, controlling tax evasion or protecting intellectual property rights. Rather it is an attempt to bring private and independent entities under the control of a central state plan, which can only mean “greater deterioration”.

Although Abdel-Dayem has stated that the decree only applies to state-supported events, the decree itself declares it unlawful to hold any cultural event without a licence from the Ministry of Culture following “coordination with the relevant authorities in the state”. The committee not only holds the power of life and death over festivals, sets the agenda of dates and venues as it pleases and oversee the banning of unlicensed events across the country, it can also enter the headquarters of organisations holding the festivals during or after the event. 

As cultural journalist Sayed Mahmoud points out in Al-Shorouk, even at face value and in good faith, it is clear that such bureaucratic complications can only present an obstacle to civil and independent initiatives, stunting the growth of young artists and movements. No artists or intellectuals were consulted, Mahmoud adds: “I was one of many who called for a framework to manage the current chaos of festivals but this does not give the Ministry of Culture the right to exercise control over entities outside its executive authority. We wanted transparency and accountability to combat corruption, not to paralyse cultural activities.”

That said, Al-Wafd cultural editor Amgad Mustafa welcomed the decree as an aid to both transparency and inclusiveness. Everywhere in the world, he says, people require permission from the state to organise festivals. And limiting state support to a maximum of 40 per cent of any cultural event’s budget — another stipulation of the decree — facilitates financial accountability, and helps to prevent events that drain the state budget without bringing about any benefits at the level of culture or tourism.

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