Who Should the Egyptian Culture Ministry Serve?

Egypt’s new culture minister, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, went on television Friday to say that he had no regrets about his new policies and firings and that, despite protests, there is no turning back:

wzyr_lthqf_l_bd_lzyz_tswyr_smyr_sdq_13.jpg.crop_displayHis thoughts were reiterated in condensed form on IkhwanWeb, the MB’s official English-language website.  These announcements followed the continued sit-in of dozens of artists at the culture ministry, which began on Wednesday. The protestors’ core demand has been the removal of MB ally Abdel-Aziz as minister.

Meanwhile, in Ahram Online, AUC history professor and commentator Khaled Fahmy questions the value of the sit-in:

I have to admit, that I have been puzzled not by the stance of the minister and the Muslim Brotherhood but rather by that of artists and intellectuals.

Fahmy suggests that:

The interest of the Brotherhood in the ministry of culture is based on an old and long[-]engraved belief they have; namely, that Egypt’s identity has been hijacked by a handful of Westernised intellectuals, and that the time has come for Egypt to regain its original, pristine Islamic identity.

But, while Fahmy is certainly not in favor of this MB project, he also suggests that the artists and thinkers at the sit-in are not listening to the public, and that “between these two warring faction[s], people get lost hungering for literature, music and art.”

Fahmy notes, in particular, the shabby state that Egyptian libraries and museums have long been in — long, long before the MB came on the scene. This is unarguably true. Egyptian “State Culture” has long played a corrupting role, and this cannot be laid at the feet of the MB. In 2003, when Sonallah Ibrahim said, “We no longer have theater, cinema, or scientific research; we just have festivals, conferences, and false funds,” the Brotherhood was still ten years from taking power.

However, Sonallah Ibrahim — no fan of State Culture — could also be found at the Ministry of Culture sit-in. Is he now defending a return of these “festivals, conferences, and false funds”?

Instead, I think, there are several things at work here: Yes, many of the state agencies are corrupt and don’t serve artists or potential art-lovers. Most of those at the sit-in, and who have protested elsewhere, know this very well. For instance novelist Salwa Bakr, who signed on to one of the oust-Abdel-Aziz letters, has long known that State Culture often means Censorship Culture.

And over at Egypt Sourcenovelist Muhammad Aladdin told Lissie Jaquette:

The Ministry of Culture is the same as it was under Mubarak, just with new faces. It still has a narrow and opportunistic understanding of Islam and culture. The real problem with the Ministry of Culture is the idea that culture can enlighten the masses, because funding can be used to push their agenda or ideas.

Aladdin, who recently give the young writers’ speech at the Egyptian intellectual convention and therein argued for abolishing the Ministry of Culture — not defending the old regime figures — also supported the sit-in. He was there for some five hours, signed all the petitions, and said later, “we can’t let the ministry go from pseudo-secularism to Islamists,” but must de-centralize and support all Egyptian culture.

I do believe, like Fahmy, that an independent Culture Ministry’s job should be to make culture accessible and available to all Egyptians — libraries, archives, and museums above all. But that is not the same as culture being in service of the masses, as Fahmy seems to suggest.

Also: The space for Egyptian culture has been corrupted and narrowed; that doesn’t mean it can’t be corrupted and narrowed further.