Egyptian artists wary of government’s new decision to vet cultural festivals

The government argued that the measure was to introduce discipline in the domain and reorganise it with new regulations.
Sunday 29/07/2018
More restrictions. An actress working at the Pharaonic Village throws flowers into the Nile during the Wafaa El-Nil Festival in Giza.  (AP)
More restrictions. An actress working at the Pharaonic Village throws flowers into the Nile during the Wafaa El-Nil Festival in Giza. (AP)

CAIRO - The Egyptian government’s new requirement that cultural festivals get permission from the Ministry of Culture has riled intellectuals, who see in it an attempt at censorship to stifle creativity and impose co-option.

The government argued that the measure was to introduce discipline in the domain and reorganise it with new regulations.

Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouli’s decision would create a higher commission for organising festivals and private concerts, presided over by the Culture minister and include representatives of the Foreign Affairs, Interior, Finance and Tourism and Antiquities ministries in addition to heads of artists’ and writers’ unions and cultural experts chosen by the minister of culture.

The decision defines “cultural festivals” as local or international cultural and artistic events of a celebratory character, state-organised or otherwise, and aiming at promoting artistic and cultural creativity, preserving cultural heritage and enacting cultural exchange between Egypt and the rest of the world.

The most controversial aspect of the decision was a clause concerning festival organisers’ obligation to secure government pre-approval. Clause 2 states: “It is forbidden to organise a festival or a public celebration without prior permission from the Ministry of Culture, which will coordinate with the concerned state agencies, including the tax administration and the internal security.”

Minister of Culture Ines Abdel Dayem described the measure as “a comprehensive and objective approach by the government to place the events on the right track within the framework of an official agenda.”

Those involved in culture in Egypt stated disappointment with Abdel Dayem’s decision. The minister is a well-known flutist who took over the ministry in January. Many expected the “Solo Queen,” as she is affectionately known, to champion freedom of expression and artistic independence because she had considered herself part of the innovative current rather than part of the administrative machine.

Most people were not convinced by arguments advanced for the decision. It was a blunt decision and its objective was clear: It marks the end of free artistic and cultural life and the beginning of the ministry’s control of this domain.

The worst hit by the decision were Egyptian impresarios. They said “the decision was vague and shocking. It returns the country to the Dark Ages of state control of intellectuals and of discouraging bureaucracy.” Cultural activities must remain free and far from the shackles of heavy government bureaucracy, they said.

Writer Hana Naseer, a member of the organising committee of a conference on free poetry, said the natural reaction was to refuse any measures that would exacerbate the decline of culture in Egypt and of Egypt’s cultural role in the Arab world. Culture is supposed to be one of the weapons in the war against terrorism.

Naseer said it was imperative for intellectuals in Egypt to oppose any form of government control on culture and creativity. “We warn against the return of totalitarianism,” she said. “The regime is trying to control all channels for enhancing the consciousness of the different social classes but this dangerous approach has led a few decades ago to an ugly Arab defeat whose painful consequences are still with us today.”

Poet Mahmoud Sherif, head of Tanta’s International Poetry Festival, said the ministry’s decision did not clearly delimit its prerogatives nor did it fix the criteria and conditions that must be made available for a festival to be allowed.

The ministry’s role and commitments towards the events that eventually receive permission were not included in the decision, he said.

Writer Mohamad al-Baali, head of Cairo’s literary festival, said the ministry’s decision was another attempt to control cultural life in Egypt and return to the doctrines and practices of the 1960s when art and culture were tools for mobilising society in the service of specific political goals. He said that, if the decision was implemented, it would mark the end of independent cultural production and many youth-organised cultural events.

Poet and critic Omar Shahraiar agreed, saying the decision is likely to kill personal initiatives and cultural activities by civil society organisations. When independent cultural activists are forced to comply with government routine and bureaucracy, they will simply stop their cultural activities, he says.

Shahraiar said it was incongruous that the government’s decision came when intellectuals should join ranks to fight terrorism and extremism but with this move, the government was practically preventing the country’s intellectual elite from doing its patriotic duty.

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