CAIRO: For thousands of years, art has held an honored place in Egypt, being rich with both artists and patrons.While art continues to have an influence on the people of this country, many feel it is no longer held in high esteem by the government. The sad state of many of the buildings provided for exhibitions and entertainment, a fact which many artists are doing their best to focus attention on, is what has given rise to this seeming lack of attention. Artists have taken up the cause, and are rallying in protest.
Mahmoud El-Lozy, director and professor of theater at the American University in Cairo feels that this neglect exposes the government’s lack of care for safety in Egypt.”Safety precautions, specifically for entertainment and the arts is way below acceptable safety standards, he claims.”Without fire extinguishers and escape routes in buildings such as this, it was an accident waiting to happen, he continues, referring to the tragic fire at a Beni Suef theater this past September.
The week following the Beni Suef fire was slotted as a time for cultural appreciation and performances in Cairo, but after the tragedy many artists and patrons felt it necessary to boycott the remaining events in protest against the government for the fire and what they felt was a poor response. The festival was to be the first of its kind to be held in the capital gathering artists from around Egypt and the world to converge in Cairo for the festival, which included music, art and theatrical performances.
Despite the fire and subsequent boycott of some of the events, the Cairo Festival was considered a success. Some consider it proof that Cairo is now ready for the international artist community to have a greater role in the arts here in Egypt, although El-Lozy is skeptical if the fire in Beni Suef will have any impact on the international community. Morgan Freeman made an appearance at the Cairo International Film Festival.
“International artists are taken to the places the minister desires, he says.
“They go to the Opera House and other ‘western’ locations. The government will never show artists the true art community, which Beni Suef represented, El-Lozy argues.
Many artists in Cairo called for legal action against Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni and the governor of Beni Suef. According to El-Lozy this has split the community. “One half is asking for the resignation of the minister of culture and the other side is supporting him, El-Lozy says. “This seems to be a continual process; loyalty to the government versus loyalty for the artists.
“It doesn’t really matter if the minister is removed, El-Lozy argues.
The fire at the Cultural Palace in Beni Suef, a governorate south of Cairo, on Sept. 5, dealt a major blow to the art community in Cairo and Egypt as a whole.Many blamed the fire, which resulted in more than 40 deaths, on the government. One little noticed result of the fire was that Artists for Change, a group under the umbrella of the larger Kefaya movement, began to meet regularly for meetings in Beni Suef.
Fanoon Kefaya was a participant in the recent protests held in Cairo before and after the parliamentary elections. Their support helped bring hundreds of people together for the purpose of showing their backing for change in Egypt.
“We are truly hurt by the loss of those individuals at Beni Suef months ago.
They were a strong force in the continued movement to pressure the government for change, and there was no better place than in the theater, says Bassem, a member of Shibab Kefaya. Shibab Kefaya is a subgroup of the larger Kefaya movement, much like Fanoon Kefaya.
Kefaya is arguably the second largest active opposition organization in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood being considered the largest and most active.
Kefaya has held numerous protests over the past four months leading up to and following the first multi-candidate presidential election in Egypt as well as the recent parliamentary elections. While technically a separate group from the main Kefaya movement, Fanoon Kefaya, by employing the name Kefaya shows its support for Kefaya and has been a part of many of the actions taken by the movement. Kefaya brings together a multitude of groups and organizations that want to see real change in Cairo.
“Fanoon Kefaya is an important aspect of our movement as they are able to bring together artists throughout Egypt in the struggle for change, Bassem believes.
Artists for Change have, and most certainly will continue, to be instrumental in revolutionizing a large portion of the artist community for what Kefaya represents. Kefaya is pushing a strong statement: ‘no’ to the current government and hereditary rule; ‘no’ to the emergency law, which amount to a state of martial law; and ‘yes’ to a new constitution that limits the power of the presidency and the courts. Fanoon Kefaya adheres to these principles and thus, fits under the umbrella of the organization.
“Groups such as Fanoon Kefaya and Shabab Kefaya represent the larger movement in beliefs and desire to make real change in Egypt, Bassem relates.” Without these groups, Kefaya would not be as strong as it is today. But Fanoon Kefaya and the fire in September show how difficult it is to be an activist here in Egypt, he concludes.