Egypt’s Cultural Future: The Death of the ‘Intellectual’?

Al-Arabiya talked yesterday with two-week Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour, who resigned in the waning days of the Mubarak regime, as well as with several other cultural figures, including Culture Wheel founder and new Minister of Culture Mohamed al-Sawy.

All are now publicly allying themselves with youth and revolution.

Asfour, part of Mubarak’s last-ditch-effort cabinet, echoed several other figures from the cultural establishment. He told al-Arabiya that youths should replace the “intellectuals” who have been occupying the literary scene.

Dr. Sherine Abul-Naga, English professor and literary critic, and Medhat al-Gayar—critic and member of the Higher Council of Culture—both jumped on the anti-intellectual bandwagon. According to al-Arabiya, Abul-Naga said:

People have reached the point of feeling repelled by the word ‘intellectual.’ In the new Egypt, there is no place for intellectuals that are detached from the people. We have to restore the lost communication between intellectuals and the people.

Several voices—including al-Gayar and author Gamal al-Ghitani—have called for abolishing the position of minister of culture. However, it should be noted that many countries have culture ministers who have not discredited the job, and a country without intellectuals would probably not rise as a new cultural beacon for the Arabic-reading world.

Also, while established cultural figures call for youth to supplant intellectualism, it’s unclear that Egypt’s under-40s—many of whom are making their mark on Arabic language and literature—have a desire to throw out sophisticated culture with the regime bathwater.

Al-Sawy told al-Arabiya that he would continue with the activities of the al-Sawy Culture Wheel, with a focus on giving “youths the chance to express their views and exercise their creativity without restrictions.”

Meanwhile, many Egyptian artists and writers were not buying al-Sawy’s rhetoric. According to Ahram Online, theater director Mohamed Abdel-Fattah Kalabala warned that he will go on hunger strike if the government insists on El Sawy for the ministerial post. Critics say that the self-inflicted censorship in the Wheel has surpassed that of the already stringent state control.

For instance, Dar Merit’s Mohamed Hashim told Al Masry Al Youm of al-Sawy’s supervisory role in a photography exhibition, when he refused to display a picture of a young girl wearing a swimsuit.

What does al-Sawy think about censorship?

From an interview with The Japan Foundation:

To tell the truth, I don’t know why but for some reason we have a very good relationship with the censors at the moment. I don’t know if it is because the censor bureau has a strong trust in us, but they don’t interfere with our activities at all. I think it may be that our ethical standard of respect for people and determination to uphold the peace and stability is more than censorship policies demand. Of course, our policy is to not accept contents that are injurious to people or contain radical or inflammatory expressions.

On al-Sawy as culture minister:

Ahram Online: “Cold welcome to Sawy’s appointment.”

Al Masry Al Youm: “Intellectuals and artists reject Sawy as Culture Minister.”

Bikya Masr: “Egypt’s new culture minister under fire.”

غدا وقفة احتجاجية أمام وزارة الثقافة بشارع شجرة الدر بالزمالك الساعة 12 ظهرا لرفض تكليف محمد الصاوى بمسئولية وزارة الثقافة

Also, read the petition on Facebook. It has been signed by a number of prominent writers and artists.