For 23 years, Egypt’s cultural scene was in the hands of Farouq Hosny. One can write volumes on the man, rumours mixed with truths until his reputation was completely ruined. What we do know though is that he was a lousy painter; he painted like a six year old and yet he was able to “sell” his paintings to officials of the Mubarak regime and other Arab and foreign figures. He was also known to be very close to Suzanne Mubarak; some say he was her “stylist” and “fashion consultant”, some say they partnered in trading Egyptian artefacts. For 23 years, Farouq Hosny ran the Ministry of Culture, and the arts and culture scene in Egypt hit rock bottom save a few departments within the ministry that were lucky enough to have good management, like the Cairo Opera House.
To give an idea on what falls under this ministry, let’s just say everything from literature, to national archives, to cinema, to fine arts. The Censorship Authority also falls under the Culture Ministry. The cinema festivals and book fairs and art museums and theatres, including privately owned because they have to follow the regulations put by the ministry. This ministry, as we know it now, was formed under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule, an era known for censorship and “national guidance” as the ministry was called at the time: The Ministry of National Guidance.
Since the 25 January Revolution, the ministry witnessed six ministers. The seventh minister was appointed in the latest reshuffle by Qandil earlier last month, featuring Alaa Abdel Aziz as the minister of culture.
The first thing Abdel Aziz said was that “Egyptian intellectuals are the offspring of Farouq Hosny’s stockyard,” a statement that brought a lawsuit from several intellectuals against the minister. And then came the sackings and the replacements. The minister went on a firing spree and he saw fit to fire one of the most qualified of its employees: Ines Abdel Dayem, the head of the Cairo Opera House.
Protests and a sit-in are ongoing, not only because of the sackings, but mainly because of what the minister stands for, and what he intends to do with the already struggling arts and culture scene. And rightfully so!
Who is Alaa Abdel Aziz? Our initial research mentioned a PhD in cinematography and some books. He was also part of a research team that composed the Encyclopaedia of Jews, Judaism, and Zionism. What we failed to find out was the under-construction political party of which Abdel Aziz is a member: an extreme rightwing Islamist party.
What he stands for is clear in the party’s programme and is very much in line with all other Islamist parties in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (albeit not so publicly). The published party programme states the following: “The party strives to achieve a comprehensive renaissance for Egypt within its Arab and Islamic frame… where the deep belief in God is the cornerstone of every action taken by the party.” A few paragraphs down the page comes this: “Such renaissance can only be achieved if Egypt gains political and military independence and ridding the nation from the dominance of the foreign ‘arrogant’ powers, namely the United States of America and its Zionist allies.” Moving on to the foreign relations section we find an emphasis on Arab and Islamic unity “making it possible to overcome the creative chaos which the US administration seeks to serve the Zionist project which aims at increasing the nation’s division.” Then a few paragraphs on the importance of uniting with “our fellow Muslim countries, to achieve an Islamic nation.”
In the Family and Women section, Abdel Aziz’s party was quite clear, stating things along the lines of not falling prey to western culture and how the West views family planning, given our Islamic background, and that the state should not enforce family planning. Then, there were a few paragraphs on women, which annoyed me personally. First, an intro on the importance of women and how they are half the society and the rest of this lip service, and just to make sure we understand that even though men and women are equals, “they are not the same, which results in a difference in their roles in society. The primary role of a woman is to raise children and take care of the family… and if her abilities allow, and it doesn’t interfere with her primary role, then she can work if the family circumstances require it.” Also, there are jobs that “must be done by women, like teaching girls and some specialisations in the medical field.”
Then comes the section on education, culture and language. Again a lot of worthless introductions, and then finally: “We must reconsider the literary, artistic, media and culture messages delivered… and the Islamic and Arab identity must be enforced in the education curriculum.”
I tried to count how many times I read the word Shari’a in the party’s programme, and now I understand why the wannabe writer became the culture minister. Islamists are trying to take over the minds of the Egyptian people; first the education ministry, then the information ministry, and now the culture ministry. All are run by hard line Islamists.
I do not want to imagine what kind of culture this minister will enforce in our cinemas, books, music, arts and cultural centres! These, along with their censorship committee, are under the leadership of the Islamist Alaa Abdel Aziz. But will they be able to censor Egyptian youth? Those who performed Zorba’s Dance in front of the Culture Ministry seem unlikely to budge!