What Should (and Shouldn’t) an Egyptian Culture Ministry Do for Literature?

Emad Abou-Ghazi

The Egyptian Ministry of Culture has a lot of shoveling ahead if it intends to shift the organization from one that stifles cultural developments into one that supports their flowering.

When new Minister of Culture Emad Abou-Ghazi spoke with Ahram Online a week ago, he underlined that his role is limited. “Right now, in a transitional government, we can only look at the immediate present….”

In the immediate present, addressing corruption within the ministry seems to be taking up a good deal of attention. Abou-Ghazi also spoke about a few broader initiatives with Al Ahram Weekly and Al Jarida, such as removing the Supreme Council of Culture from direct governmental control.

Some authors have suggested that, to truly break with the past, Egypt must dissolve the culture ministry. Author and critic Ibrahim Farghali felt the ministry should remain. But:

Yes, we still need the ministry, but I think that time is no longer appropriate for the culture of the showy conference. The new era needs specific activity on a smaller and deeper scale, and expansion in the provinces.

The Ministry of Culture, he said, should support non-governmental culture centers and activities. It should also take its ability to disseminate literature more seriously.

I cannot see any logic to setting up a national center for translation and then putting the books on sale in a small library at the Opera House, forgetting that its role is to publish all these books and [to be] one of the most powerful marketing tools around Egypt.

All of this [change] requires a revolutionary approach in the management of the Ministry and…the search for a new youth who are interested, enlightened and innovative enough to carry out the ministry’s policies.

Indeed, there has been a seemingly wide consensus on involving youth in the Ministry of Culture after many years of alienation.

Censorship: Still the Elephant in the Room

Different forms of censorship also remain a big hurdle. Before his appointment as Minister of Culture, Abou-Ghazi told The National:

On the cultural level, there is cultural legislation that should be amended, for instance the Control of Works of Art Act, so the function of censorship is changed into a system with two main missions – the protection of intellectual property, and setting the age limit for viewing literature. In a sense the work is not banned but age-restricted.

The last point in cultural legislation is cancelling the censorship of foreign publications. In the Egyptian legal system there is no censorship over Egyptian publications, but if a foreign publication comes into the country it has to be censored by the ministry of information. This system should be scrapped. We face this problem annually during the international book fair. In the matter of offensive material, that should be judged by a judicial body.

However, once Abou-Ghazi was appointed Minister of Culture, he said in his first news conference that he would not—and perhaps he could not—issue a decision canceling censorship. That, he said, was the job of the People’s Assembly.

He also told Al Ahram Weekly, in response to a question about the books that couldn’t be printed by state publishers:

This was not censorship: each publisher has its own policy and makes its own evaluation before producing a book, though private publishers have more freedom in this domain than state ones. The latter have to deal with various public authorities as well as the public as a whole because they use public funds.

Well, no. These, too, have been forms of censorship. But changes will have to come piece by piece, and with continued pressure from the arts community. Author Mansoura Ez Eldin:

I respect Mr. Abou Ghazi and was one of the writers who signed a petition for him to be the culture minister, but I didn’t like his response in the interview about the censorship in the governmental cultural organizations. I guess our role as writers is to stand against all kinds of censorship.

More:

Al Masry Al Youm: Imagining a different Ministry of Culture

Al Ahram Weekly: Newly appointed chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organisation Ahmed Megahed talks to Nevine El-Aref

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