Seventy days after his resignation, Mohamed Saber Arab was re-appointed for the third time as Egypt’s culture minister. Arab’s first appointment was in May 2012 after the dismissal of Shaker Abdel-Hamid in the caretaker government led by Kamal Al-Ganzouri and continued under Hisham Kandil but resigned following the cabinet reshuffle of May 2013. During his tenure in the Kandil cabinet, Arab resigned three times because of political issues and what he called “pressure”. His third tenure started two weeks ago in the interim governament of Hazem Al-Beblawi formed after the 30 June Revolution and the toppling of Mohamed Morsi as president along with the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.
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 retiring in 2011 he headed the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO). After retirement he became the culture 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.
A huge pile of files is waiting for Arab. Many involve sensitive issues that peaked under his predecessor Alaa Abdel-Aziz who during his only two months in office dismissed key figures of Egypt’s cultural institutions and replaced them with Muslim Brotherhood members or those who support Islamist ideology.
Among those figures blacklisted were Ines Abdel-Dayem, the chairwoman of the Cairo Opera House and a renowned flautist, Mohamed Megahed, head of the GEBO, Sayed Tawfik, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Culture, Abdel-Wahed Al-Nabawi, head of archives, and Abdel-Nasser Hassan, chairman of the National Archives and Books Organisation. Such action was rejected by Egypt’s intellectuals and artists who prohibited Abdel-Aziz from entering his office, occupied the Ministry of Culture and announced a sit-in until 30 June when the revolution started. Arab also cancelled the annual State Awards and Cairo International Film Festival as well as other cultural activities, festivals and symposiums.
Arab also has to face a rebellion within the cultural society by those angered following rumours that it was the Salafis who were behind choosing Arab and not Abdel-Dayem, whose name had been announced in connection with the post, turning down the offer at the last minute.
Also the role of the ministry in raising cultural awareness is in urgent need of rethinking.
Arab tells Al-Ahram Weekly the story behind his re-appointment and the new plans he has for the future.
Did you expect to be re-appointed as Egypt’s culture minister for the third time? What were the circumstances surrounding your selection?
No, I did not expect such a post and did not seek it. I was enjoying retirement and was able to share in the political movements in Egypt. My family and I signed the Tamarod petition and participated in the 30 June Revolution. When Abdel-Dayem was to be Egypt’s minister of culture I was really happy because at the professional level she can manage the ministry and on the personal level she has a good personality full of enthusiasm and extremely loyal to the country as well as being a woman. This is a strong message on the national and international levels.
When Prime Minister Hazem Al-Beblawi called me to meet him in the cabinet I refused and supported Abdel-Dayem as a choice. The next morning I was surprised with another call from Al-Beblawi who insisted on my immediate arrival at the cabinet. I went but had the intention of turning the post down. But on my way, Abdel-Dayem called me and pressed me to accept the post because she said: “If you do not accept we won’t know who will be minister.” Upon her insistence I accepted the post.
Did the Salafist Nour Party play a role in excluding Abdel-Dayem at the last moment?
I did not hear such rumours at all and if it were true I would not accept the post at all. Up till now I am not convinced that the Nour Party played any role in blocking Abdel-Dayem. On one hand, the party launched a statement denying any connection with the matter. On the other hand, Abdel-Dayem herself denied that she received any threat or was put under pressure from the Nour Party or anyone else.
How did you solve the controversy over your selection with Egypt’s cultural society which continued their sit-in after the announcement?
There was no controversy, just a misunderstanding between the cultural community and me. I am no stranger to it and have 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.
I met with a group of intellectuals including novelist Bahaa Taher, filmmakers Magdi Ali and Khaled Youssef, artist Sameh Al-Sereiti and writer Fathiya Al-Assal, among others. During the meeting, several issues were discussed and I confirmed that the role of the ministry at this stage would not be restricted to what had been done; it will now play a more influential role in the community, as was demonstrated by the intellectuals’ sit-in protest of Abdel-Aziz and his policies prefiguring 30 June.
We also agreed to hold in September a conference to discuss the future of culture in Egypt as well as resume cultural projects that have been put on hold such as the annual State Awards, the Cairo Film Festival, the Cairo International Book Fair, the restoration of the National Theatre in Ataba and activities in cultural palaces all over Egypt.
The independence of Egypt’s cultural policy against the attempt by Islamists to exclude intellectuals from the political scene was also discussed.
Did the Morsi regime have any influence on the independence of Egypt’s cultural policy and identity? We heard that this was the main reason behind your three resignations.
The toppled regime had a very strange vision. They wanted to hold lectures and seminars in cultural palaces entitled: Courses for Muslim Youth (Dawrat for Al-Shabiba Al-Muslema). They also wanted to use the GEBO’s press to print papers concerning the constitution and packed it in volumes. The volumes would include documents of constitutional committees, complaints therein, the debates and suggestions.
Frankly speaking, I rejected such a request because my national, cultural and human integrity prevents me from printing such a thing. On the professional level printing these volumes is not allowed and unethical because it is not a book. These volumes can only be posted on a website.
I resigned for 15 days but due to urgings from my colleagues and intellectuals I returned to my job. I was really sad to return during such a regime because there was not any hope in it on the economical, cultural, social, educational and political levels. Such a regime failed to achieve compatibility among Egypt’s various national forces.
The regime was living in its own bubble. Although the country’s institutions are collapsing, all governmental officials saw that everything was correctly handled and on the right track.
But I returned and resigned and told Kandil that I am not willing to hold the post again in the cabinet reshuffling in May 2013.
Do you know Abdel-Aziz? Why was he appointed?
No, I don’t know Abdel-Aziz at all. I never met him in any cultural events or gatherings. I also did not read anything he wrote or came upon anything he did in film editing.
His selection was really a surprise to me but it was expected.
The Ministry of Culture was the only institution that stood against being Brotherhoodised with the one-year-old regime. It disobeyed to be changed and it was a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. Hence, it was important to assign a minister who would propose and introduce their ideological vision and points of view.
If this is your opinion, why didn’t you participate in the intellectuals’ sit-in against Abdel-Aziz?
I supported them with all my heart and soul but the situation was ambiguous as I am the former minister and it will look like I am the instigator or I am greedy to take the post again. The whole situation would be personalised, which is not the case.
I want to say that the intellectuals’ sit-in will continue but differently. All intellectuals, artists, filmmakers, actors, poets, novelists and writers will gather in September at the Supreme Culture Council in a conference to discuss the future of culture during the next two decades and how to face the challenges of the new Egypt. Other ministries in connection with culture, especially those negatively impacting on Egypt’s culture like the Ministry of Endowments, for example, shall be discussed. The ministries of antiquities, tourism, education will also have their share.
The conference will draw up a plan and a vision of Egypt’s culture future, which in turn would be introduced to the government for discussion after which all the ministries will work to implement the country’s cultural programme.
On your first working day you reinstated all the key figures of Egypt’s cultural institutions dismissed by Abdel-Aziz and you revoked all his decisions taken during his two-month tenure. Some say this was a policy of exclusion. What do you think?
I did not and will not exclude anyone. Frankly, the Ministry of Culture does not include employees of political Islamist ideology.
What I did is correct the current situation. During Abdel-Aziz’s tenure top and mid-level officials from several cultural and art streams were excluded from the ministry without concrete reasons or a crime committed. The only accusation is that they were dismissed due to corruption but Abdel-Aziz did not provide any documents or anything that accused them of corruption. Abdel-Aziz replaced them with other employees and my duty was to correct what was done wrong during the previous tenure. I think this is fair enough.
Any Muslim Brotherhood member is welcome to host any position in the ministry; it all depends on efficiency. But we will never accept that he opens the ministry to widespread special thoughts that serve a specific ideology. We are all Muslims. We Egyptians, Copts and Muslims, are the biggest believers among all nations.
There was no exclusion but as a responsible person I will not allow the falsification of people’s minds and awareness.
Egyptians have to re-read jurisprudence of Mohamed Abdu, Shaltout Mohamed Shaltout, Abdel-Metaal Al-Sayidi and Al-Azhar institution.
Now in this discordant atmosphere what would be the main role of the Ministry of Culture in uniting all segments of society?
The ministry and intellectuals are the country’s “fine” power. The ministry has to dedicate all its facilities to establish a complete programme for Egypt’s culture.
Culture is not only a basic infrastructure including buildings, training, people and equipment or singing, music, reading or fine art. On the contrary it is a “culture of life”.
This would not be achieved unless all the concerned ministries are in tandem. The ministry is not an educational school. It is not a factory to produce creators but puts them on the right track to the future.
Where are the cultural palaces in all this? Why has their role been reduced?
Yes, the cultural palaces’ role has been reduced because it was no longer the only entertainment possibility in Egypt. Now it has other competitors such as television, Facebook and Twitter, which are a more attractive means of information and knowledge. Now it has to find an appropriate language and dialogue in order to address the minds of people with transparency and provide a clear vision.
When will there be a Ministry of Culture for intellectuals?
The role of the Ministry of Culture is to serve intellectuals and art creators whether inside or outside the ministry. It is also the point that connects intellectuals to facilitate their cultural mission. There is no difference between those intellectuals inside or outside the ministry; it is only a geographical difference.
How did you see 30 June and the three announcements made by Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi?
The whole situation since 30 June until now for me was unexpected. And all what had happened was a dream that came true.
For me, demonstrations and marches on 30 June as well as Al-Sisi’s announcements on 30 June and 3 and 26 July were really a surprise. I expected the change and I was confident that Egypt would sooner or later get rid of such a regime but not that soon. I was among those who believed that my generation would not see Egypt’s resurrection or the new Egypt. When I heard Al-Sisi’s announcement on 3 July announcing the toppling of the regime and the appointment of Adli Mansour as Egypt’s interim president I was very happy and felt released. I smelled the air of Egypt differently and an optimistic smile was drawn on all Egyptians.
I want to say that what happened was by no means “a coup” as some call it. According to history, a coup is followed by reciprocal reactions, assassinations and army rule of the country, which is not the case in Egypt. Let’s make a comparison between what happened on 30 June and the last military coup in Turkey, for example, and everyone will realise the difference.
How do you see Al-Sisi? Is he a resurrection of the charisma of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser as some say?
When I first saw Al-Sisi during a cabinet meeting in 2012 I stopped and admired his character a lot. I had a cliché idea of what a military man would look like. From the previous Supreme Council of the Armed Forces formed during the January 2011 Revolution I thought that an officer is a classic character that took a long time to take a decision with very slow reactions concerning any problem. But Al-Sisi is totally different. He has a very calm personality, does not talk much and always gets to the point. He has structured thinking, courage and adores his country. When talking you realise that you are standing in front of a person with a political strategic vision. He is also a good reader of Egypt’s history and well informed of the history of Egypt’s army in different times.
I don’t seek any position or anything from him.
I don’t see Abdel-Nasser in Al-Sisi because I believe that history cannot be resurrected. But the idea of a leader is still carved in the hearts of Egyptians, which arises in moments of fear and anxiety about the future. They create a leader. Saad Zaghloul for example existed in Egypt’s political spectrum long before the 1919 Revolution but Egyptians decided to make him a leader in 1919.
Do you think that the interim government will succeed although it includes old minds?
We must succeed. We don’t have a choice. To be or not to be! I see that the government is a blend of classical and youthful thoughts; experience and courage. For example, I am an old classical mind as you said but I can easily cope with the young generation of the ministry’s leaders. I discuss with them several issues and take their advice in others.
And this is the case in all ministries, where a base of young people plays a role in decision-making.
Some say the Ministry of Culture did not play a role in improving the image of the interim government abroad after 30 June.
On the contrary since taking the post I have been in direct contact with all cultural attachés of foreign embassies, including Arab embassies, in Egypt where we can exchange a dialogue concerning Egypt’s political situation and that what happened was not a coup but the nation’s desire.
Most of them have properly understood us except a few who cannot oppose their countries’ positions.
What will you do with employees inside the ministry who want a raise in salary?
I call on employees of the ministry to be more responsible and understand the dangers that the country is facing. To put aside personal differences, calm down and draw up a plan for extending cultural bridges that have been cut off for many decades. We have to have a concrete vision that reflects and responds to the new phase.
I also call on businessmen in Egypt to help the ministry in restoring the National Theatre in Ataba and rehabilitate the area surrounding it. The restoration work stopped for a year because of a lack of budget which is LE40 million.
Will the annual State Awards be held this year after being put on hold by Abdel-Aziz?
Yes, it will be held especially after Minister of Finance Ahmed Galal approved the required budget of LE7 million to hold the annual State Awards this year in culture, arts and science.