Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1158, (25 - 31 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Ripples in the cultural pond

The intellectuals’ discontent continues, Nevine El-Aref reports

Sabr Arab
Sabr Arab
Al-Ahram Weekly

When Saber Arab was reappointed minister of culture late last week, intellectuals and artists were up in arms. The choice of Arab did not live up to their expectations, and they were already upset following rumours that it was the Salafis who were behind the blocking of Cairo Opera House director Ines Abdel-Dayem, whose name had been announced in connection with the post, turning down the offer at the last minute.
To express their objection to Arab, intellectuals returned to the ministry’s premises in Zamalek and announced the continuation of their sit-in.
In a statement they issued, the intellectuals said they reject the way in which Abdel-Dayem was blocked from the post and object to the influence exercised by political Islam in national affairs, describing it as “unacceptable after the occurrence of a major revolution on 30 June which imposed the will of Egyptians”. They said they were surprised to hear of Abdel-Dayem turning down the post, having been told by top officials that her name was omitted right before she went to take her oaths. “The source told us that the reason behind her exclusion was intense pressure exerted by representatives of political Islam, to which blackmail the government and the presidency gave in… ”
As novelist Mohamed Al-Boghdadi puts it, “intellectuals are condemning the return of politicians to meddling in national affairs and reject the practice of political blackmail regardless of the political force that undertakes it and that forces orientation.” He explained that this is in no way related to Arab himself but rather refers to news — not yet confirmed — that Abdel-Dayem received threats from the Salafist Nour Party.
Staging the sit-in, Egypt’s cultural community have also signed a petition for Prime Minister Hazem Al-Beblawi, demanding a transparent explanation of the circumstances that led to Abdel-Dayem turning down the post which actually identifies the political force able to put pressure on the government to the extent of forcing it to recant its decision on who should be minister. Intellectuals also called on the presidency and the cabinet to take strict measures against political meddling in the country’s affairs, refusing to succumb to any blackmail from political groups with religious backgrounds.
Interim President Adli Mansour and Al-Beblawi have since met with representatives of the intellectuals, including novelists Bahaa Taher, Youssef Al-Qaeed, Gamal Al-Ghitani and others. For his part Arab said there would be no misunderstanding between him and the cultural community because he is no stranger to it and has strong relations with many intellectuals and artists. “I belong to the cultural community and my office is always open to intellectuals and artists from all across the spectrum,” he said, promising he would do whatever it takes to continue what he had began in his previous tenure and initiate other cultural policies.
This is Arab’s third tenure as minister of culture. He first took office in the caretaker government led by Kamal Al-Ganzouri a year ago and continued under Hisham Kandil but resigned following the cabinet reshuffle in May 2013. During his tenure in the Kandil cabinet, Arab resigned three times because of political issues and pressure practiced on him. Arab is a professor of modern Arab history at Al-Azhar University; he headed the National Archives (Dar Al-Wathaaiq Al-Qawmiya) from 1999 to 2005, and was chairman of the National Archives from 2005 to 2009. Before reaching retirement age in 2011, for two years after Nasser Al-Ansari passed away, he headed the General Egyptian Book Organisation. After retirement he became the cultural committee reporter at the National Council of Women. Arab is best known for his book Intellectuals and Politicians in Modern Egypt; a study of Mahmoud Abbas Al-Aqqad’s political views and other research.
To show his goodwill, on his first working day Arab reinstated the key figures of Egypt’s cultural institution, who had been dismissed by Alaa Abdel-Aziz during his two-month tenure. Among them were Abdel-Dayem, the chairperson of the Cairo Opera House and a renowned flautist, Mohamed Megahed, head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, Sayed Tawfik, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Culture and Abdel-Wahed Al-Nabawi, head of Archives. He also revoked all decisions taken by Abdel-Aziz.
Arab met with a group of protesting intellectuals including novelist Bahaa Taher, filmmakers Magdi Ahmed Ali and Khaled Youssef, artist Sameh Al-Sereiti and writer Fathiya Al-Assal, among others. During the meeting, he confirmed that the role of the ministry at this stage will not be restricted to what had been done in previous stages; it will now play a more influential role in the community, as was demonstrated by the intellectuals’ sit-in in protest of Abdel-Aziz and his policy prefiguring 30 June. “The lights of the theatres will never be switched off,” Arab said. “Cultural and arts festivals will return, so will book fairs and opera concerts.”
Several cultural issues were raised and discussed in the meeting, including the independence of Egypt’s cultural policy against the attempt by Islamists to exclude intellectuals from the political scene. Intellectuals suggested organising a conference to discuss the future of culture in Egypt as well as resuming cultural projects that have been put on halt such as the restoration of the National Theatre in Ataba and activities at cultural palaces all over Egypt as well as the Faisal Book Fair which was held in Ramadan. They also urged Arab to restructure the administration of the ministry and reorder human resources according to effective criteria. Agreeing to all these suggestions, Arab asked Taher to provide him with a vision for the conference — to be held in September.
Arab also promised to resume the annual state prizes after they were put on hold by Abdel-Aziz. He sent an official memo to Minister of Finance Ahmed Galal asking for the LE7 million needed by the Supreme Council of Culture (SCC) to hold the annual state prizes this year in culture, arts and science — no response as yet, but Galal has promised to consider the request. The state prizes were supposed to take place in June; however, Abdel-Aziz did not hold the required meeting to vote on the recipients and refused to authorise any SCC members to head it instead. According to regulations, the SCC meeting to vote on and announce the winners of Egypt’s state prizes in culture, arts and science was supposed to be held before 20 June, the end of the fiscal year. Since the meeting was not held, after the end of the fiscal year the SCC has had to hand back all its financial surpluses including the prize money.

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