On 1 June, the weekly concert of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra included the internationally renowned Egyptian piano soloist Ramzi Yassa and conductor Hisham Gabr. With an especially interesting programme, the Main Hall gathered a large audience. However, instead of being greeted by Strauss’s Overture to the Gypsy Baron, the attendees found a large-scale on-stage strike of the orchestra joined by many other artists. Ongoing until the time of writing (2 June), the strike is one in a series of loud protests by artists against the newly appointed minister of culture, Alaa Abdel-Aziz. As the events are unveiling very fast, it is possible that by the time the reader sees this article, many changes will have taken place on the arts scene. Let us review the three weeks prior to 2 June to make sense of all that is going on, however.
A film editor and professor at the Higher Institute of Cinema (part of the Academy of Arts), Abdel-Aziz was offered the ministerial position on 7 May as part of the cabinet reshuffle. As such he became the sixth culture minister since the 2011 revolution. From the very first day, Abdel-Aziz’s profile was questioned by the several artists and intellectuals stating that it lacks any significant accomplishments, whether on the professional or academic level. For frequent visitors of the concert and exhibition halls, the face of Abdel-Aziz is not really known.
An allegedly poor professional and academic profile, pro-Muslim Brotherhood inclinations, and issues with the head of the Academy of Arts, Sameh Mahran, who has accused Abdel-Aziz of sexual misconduct within the academy halls, all fuelled unprecedented discontent. On 14 May, the first demonstrations against Abdel-Aziz took place in front of Al-Hanager Theatre on the Cairo Opera grounds, moving onto the ministry headquarters. Dozens of artists and intellectuals demanded the removal of the minister, claiming that he does not represent them and his appointment reflects the government’s tendency to “Brotherhoodise” all sectors of Egyptian life. Abdel-Aziz did not respond to the protest, but instead took even more drastic measures in the following days, by firing a few high-profile artists from state bodies. While doing so, the minister stated that he aimed at “cleaning the cultural scene of corruption” and “injecting fresh blood” to Egypt’s culture.
In addition to the many question marks associated with Abdel-Aziz, the intensity and timing of his actions at the ministerial chair created an outrage across cultural circles. The minister dismissed Ahmed Megahid, the head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, Salah Al-Meligui, the head of the Fine Arts Sector and finally Ines Abdel-Dayem, chairperson of the Cairo Opera House (National Cultural Centre). Abdel-Aziz appointed Reda Al-Wakil, the head of the Artistic Office at the Cairo Opera House, to replace Abdel-Dayem. Al-Wakil rejected the chair; and so, the minister reached to the Opera’s stage director, Badr Al-Zakaziki, who accepted the post despite the artists’ fierce anger. As of the time of writing, Al-Zakaziki has not been able to enter the Opera’s offices. Further complicating the situation, in response to these dismissals, several intellectuals tendered their resignation from governmental bodies in protest; among them is Said Tawfik, the head of the Supreme Council of Culture and renowned novelist Bahaa Taher, resigning from the same body, along with the poet Ahmed Abdel-Moeti Hegazi stepping down from his position as editor-in-chief of the poetry magazine Ibdaa.
The Opera’s case especially backfired. On Tuesday 28 May, when news of the firing of Abdel-Dayem emerged, the artists decided to cancel the performance of opera Aida, scheduled for that evening. Over 300 artists stood on the main hall’s stage and announced a three-day strike opposing the ministerial decisions and demanding the reinstating of Abdel-Dayem on the Opera’s chair. The minister commented on the protests, saying: “The artists have the right to protest; they have their vision, I have mine.” As the events started escalating the protests were joined by a larger portion of the cultural scene that resonated with protests staged on Thursday 30 May. On Friday 31 May, concerts scheduled by Arabic music troupes at Al-Gomhuriya Theatre and the Opera’s Main Hall were cancelled and on Saturday 1 June, the Cairo Symphony Orchestra — supported by the rest of the Opera’s companies — took the stage and, once again, announced it was on strike. The statement read to the audience announced the halting of all Opera activities for as long as the minister remains in office, and demanded that all of his decisions should be revoked.
The Opera’s case however demonstrates a very complex transformation happening on Egypt’s arts scene. Since early 2011, struggling with its limited budget, the Opera has had to redirect its focus to what reflects its original name, often forgotten by the Egyptian audiences, as the National Cultural Centre. In February 2012, when Abdel-Dayem took the Opera’s chair, she opened the door to the arts scene at large, inviting independent musicians to the Opera and giving the stage to artistic events held by the foreign institutions in Egypt. Though one missed the high-quality international performances, Abdel-Dayem found a recipe for survival in these challenging times whether from the economic, social, political or the ideological viewpoint. If the Opera lacked sufficient advertising under the previous management, now the shrinking budget has additionally paralysed what marketing efforts were there. Nevertheless, opening the doors to independent music, which brings in its own large audience, and inviting foreign cultural institutions which take care of their own activities’ promotion, both helped to draw attention to activities at the Cairo Opera.
On the other hand, when it comes to refined art forms, the “play it safe” strategy seems to be the dominating motto. Erminia Kamel, the artistic director of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, stated that she has already removed some ballets from the company’s repertoire, fearing that they may displease the more conservative audiences. Such a low profile strategy is definitely, in the eyes of the Opera directors, a solution for dealing with general attacks on the role of arts and culture, pronounced by some followers of Islamic thought and echoing in social judgement and even discussed in the upper house of the Egyptian parliament. One cannot help but wonder, however, how much longer Egypt’s arts scene can survive under consecutive budget cuts and newly emerging religious pressures that find their way to power.
Since 25 January 2011, many protest marches and sit-ins were staged by Egyptian artists for a multitude of reasons, and in the past year most of them expressed opposition to Muslim Brotherhood policies. Though supporting the changes, until the start of 2013, many artists employed at the Cairo Opera House companies avoided participation in those marches. The dismissal of Abdel-Dayem was probably the final drop that spilled the cup. What the minister of culture perhaps fails to realise is that the ticking bomb of the Cairo Opera House has finally exploded. Moreover, being an icon of Egypt and the Middle East, this one-and-a-half-century old institution apparently triggers artists from other sectors and their audiences too. Today, the Cairo Opera House artists not only address the dismissal of Abdel-Dayem but voice their opinion on the suppression exercised by the government on Egypt’s cultural scene as a whole. As such the circle of discontent grows by the minute.
Should they continue to strike and protest, the situation will become extremely difficult for the minister who, meanwhile, tries to project the image of an iron hand. His decisions are irrevocable. He says he has a vision, though until now he has failed to share it with the cultural community, who are questioning the direction he is taking in ever greater detail. He has equally failed to communicate with the protesters. The only — repetitive — information received from the minister is that he is “cleansing the scene of corruption” and “injecting new blood”. Those statements however hardly make any sense in the light of the minister’s actions. It is worth noting for instance that if, hypothetically, there is any administrative or financial corruption at the Opera House today, Al-Wakil is just as responsible for it as Abdel-Dayem. Neither Al-Wakil nor Al-Zakaziki are “fresh blood”.
The process of analysing all the details and making suggestions for a healthy re-structuring of cultural institutions, what is more, certainly requires more than three weeks in the ministerial office. In this sense the minister’s confidence is striking. So sure of his decisions and apparently expecting further protests, why did the minister prohibit the entry of any kind of cameras into the Cairo Opera House on 1 June? Despite the restriction, the media was there and has continued reporting.