Egypt culture chief’s tightrope walk between arts and Islamists

Photo by Dana Smillie for The National

Mohamed El Sawy’s job will be to strike a balance between the views of the country’s newly empowered Islamists and those of the artists, writers and filmmakers who make up one of the region’s most vibrant cultural scenes. [Published in The National UAE, Photo credits: Dana Smillie]

CAIRO // Depending on how you look at it, Mohamed El Sawy has the most exciting job in the “new” Egypt or the most unenviable one.

A member of parliament representing the centrist El Hadara Party, Mr El Sawy was appointed last week to head the legislature’s culture, media and tourism committee.

His job will be to strike a balance between the views of the country’s newly empowered Islamists and those of the artists, writers and filmmakers who make up one of the region’s most vibrant cultural scenes.

Given the intensity of feelings on both sides, it will be no easy task.

Yet Mr El Sawy is confident. The path through these looming cultural battles will be paved by culture itself, Mr El Sawy said without apparent irony.

“Culture gives people the ability to envision solutions, so they have the willingness to go through the developmental steps. Culture can shape the perception of needs that people have,” he told The National.

The stakes in the impending cultural wars could not be higher.

Unlike Egypt’s politics in the years leading up to Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power last year, its cultural scene was anything but stagnant or doddering.

With a vitality seldom matched elsewhere in the region, controversial subjects such as sex outside marriage, homosexuality and the harassment and abuse of women were explored on screen, on the page and on canvas.

Yet with Islamist parties winning nearly 70 per cent of the vote in recent elections for the lower house of parliament, those who brought those issues to life now fear the renaissance could end.

In what some here viewed as a grim portent, Abdel-Moneim El Shahat, a Salafist leader, has said that Egypt should ban the books of Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz because, he alleged, they promote prostitution and drugs. “Naguib Mahfouz’s literature leads to immorality,” Mr El Shahat said in an interview in December on Masr Enaharda, an Egyptian television programme.

It was just the latest in a series of declarations by the Salafists and their political party, Al Nour, taking aim at what they term “licentious” literature and art.

In a protest timed to coincide with last week’s swearing-in of MPs in the lower house, thousands of artists, writers and filmmakers and their supporters marched across Cairo to make clear they would not acquiesce to such attempts to curtail freedom of expression in Egypt.

“We are here to ensure the protection of freedom,” said Tamer El Koumy, one of the protesters and director of the Mahmoud Mokhtar Museum and Cultural Centre, said as he walked across the Kasr El Nil bridge toward Tahrir Square.

Mr El Sawy blames the imperatives of political campaigning for some of the more extreme proposals floated by Al Nour and the Salafists, who won 23 per cent of the seats in the lower house.

In actually writing laws, Al Nour will be more “flexible”, he said. “I am sure they will put some restrictions on nudity that is done in an appalling way and not meant for artistic purposes for example, but not more,” he said.

Mr El Sawy is no stranger to the cultural dilemmas gathering like a storm on Egypt’s horizon.

He is the founder of Abdel-Moneim El Sawy Culture Wheel, one of Egypt’s most active art and culture centres. It was founded in 2003 and named after his father, a well-known intellectual, journalist and minister of culture in the 1970s.

In recent months, the Culture Wheel, located under a traffic flyover on the island of Zamalek, has hosted theatrical performances commemorating last year’s uprising and staged shows by the band Eskenderella, which is known for its heavily political song list. It has also held seminars and lectures on Egypt after Mubarak.

Yet Mr El Sawy is hardly a libertine.

Mohamed Hammad’s short film Central, which contained “adult content”, was banned from screening at the Culture Wheel, according the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm. No official reason for the ban was given.

Mr El Sawy also put restrictions on certain plays that were critical of Mr Mubarak, according to local artists. Still, Ahmed Foad Negm, an activist poet who was highly critical of the Mubarak regime and Gamal Mubarak’s then possible bid for presidency in 2007, was allowed to give a reading.

“El Sawy is a dynamo to the cultural scene. He offered a space for people to practice culture within his framework, but he is not an artist himself,” said Amr Fikry, a photographer.

Mr El Sawy insisted there was “no issue with freedom of expression” at the Culture Wheel.

“There were very few occasions where I have had to stop any performance and it was only because they went over the line of social values,” he said, noting that western societies had rules to protect their values too.

While wary of any new laws that would restrict their freedom of expression, many artists said they were not afraid to find alternative ways to publish their ideas, screen their films and stage their plays.

“Everybody should be worried, but nobody should be afraid,” said Khaled Hafez, an artist.

“Egypt has always had taboos – sex, religion and politics. If needed, we will find creative ways to get around them.”

The real task in the post-Mubarak era is to redefine the Egyptian identity, Mr Fikry said. For that, he said, cultural expression is a necessity.

“Any person who encourages reflection on the Egyptian identity is welcome.”

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