Ati Metwaly
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on : Saturday, 12 Jan, 2013
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Artists vs Islamists

Egypt’s artists and intellectuals ready to defend the country’s culture

The end of 2012 witnessed a number of protests by Egyptian artists, who joined nationwide demonstrations denouncing numerous decisions taken by President Mohamed Morsi and the increasing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.

Artists protest against the recent crackdowns on artistic freedoms in Egypt. Source: Ati Metwaly

On 13 December 2012, a large number of cultural coalitions, artists, thinkers, and intellectuals organized a protest march from Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo to Tahrir Square. They were chanting slogans decrying the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, whose policies are suppressing creative expression: “Shave your beard, show your shame, you would find your face is Mubarak’s face,” they called out.

The march also included chants targeting the draft constitution. “Constitution for all Egyptians,” read the banners depicting iconic Egyptian artists and intellectuals including sculptor Mahmoud Mokhtar (1891–1934), playwright and novelist Yusuf Idris (1927–1991), actress Soad Hosni (1943–2001), and political figure and writer Mohamed Farid (1868–1919), among others. The protest was joined by a sheikh of Al-Azhar University, whose short speech suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies are purely political and have nothing to do with their religious belief.

A few weeks earlier, on 27 November 2012, hundreds of Egyptian artists walked from the Cairo Opera House grounds towards neighboring Tahrir Square. The crowd, which included music, cinema, and actors’ syndicates along with many renowned figures from Egypt’s artistic and intellectual sectors, chanted slogans denouncing the constitutional declaration issued by the president on 22 November, in which the president granted to himself unreserved powers and exempted his decisions from judicial oversight. The same protest rejected the mid-December referendum on Egypt’s constitution.

November’s demonstrations were dominated by chants of “Leave! Leave!” addressed to President Morsi, who has been in power only six months. The demonstrators also demanded “the downfall of the regime.” These chants brought the atmosphere of the first eighteen days of the Egyptian Revolution back to Cairo’s streets.
Last year produced a long list of cases where artists were directly attacked for their works or beliefs.
The protest marches and demonstrations that intensified at the end of 2012 testify to an accumulation of concerns for artists and intellectuals, who fear the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the statements and actions of Egypt’s Salafis. The past few months were marked by numerous public statements, court cases, and even direct confrontations between artists protecting the country’s cultural heritage and groups attacking that history (who are using a variety of justifications—including their religious beliefs—to support their destruction).

On the other hand, December also saw a days-long sit-in outside one of the gates of the Media Production City situated in 6th of October city (which borders on Cairo). This protest was staged by supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, a Salafi leader and disqualified presidential candidate. Known as the Hazemoun Movement, the Salafis demanded “media cleansing” from what they call “liberal anarchy,” pointing to a number of talk shows that they claim do not objectively depict the political situation, and which portray the president and Islamist groups in an inaccurate way.

Last year produced a long list of cases where artists were directly attacked for their works or beliefs. The beginning of the year saw incidents such as Asran Mansour, a Salafi lawyer, filing a suit against renowned Egyptian actor Adel Imam for “defaming Islam.” Many still remember the despicable statements by Abdel Moneim El-Shahat, the spokesman of Al-Da’wa Al-Salafiya (The Salafist Call), who called for a ban on works by Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel laureate in Literature, because he felt the author’s works are “atheist literature that calls for vice.” The situation seemed to go from bad to worse over the course of a few months, with increasingly serious and direct attacks on freedom of expression—as well as against the artists themselves—in the last months of 2012. One of the incidents that reverberated across the country occurred in September, when Egyptian actress Elham Shahin was insulted by Sheikh Abdallah Badr. He called her “immoral,” and added that she was “cursed and would never enter heaven.” Shahin took Badr to court over the insults and won; Badr was absent at the verdict but was fined EGP 20,000 (approx. USD 3,000) and sentenced to one year in prison. However, artists fear that the verdict will not be implemented, as it was the case with Salafi MP Ali Wanis, who was convicted of having indecent sexual relations with a girl a few months earlier but who has thus far avoided prison.

In another incident, Director Kamla Abu Zekry’s film crew was confronted at the Ain Shams University grounds in Cairo, where it was shooting television series Al-Daht. The female crew members were stopped by students belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood, who considered the actresses to be inappropriately dressed—they were wearing short skirts appropriate to the 1970s, when the series is set. In December, a group of women wearing niqab (full face veil) attacked dancer and choreographer Mirette Michail, cutting her long hair with scissors. The incident was not related to Michail’s artistic activities, and similar incidents had already taken place across Egypt. In this case, the act of cutting hair showcased the ideologies that extreme religious groups try to impose on more liberal parts of society.

Two years after the fall of Mubarak, and months after religious factions took power in the country, the situation is becoming increasingly tense

The music scene has not been exempt from assaults by extremists, either. In September, lawyer Al-Weshahy from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) filed a complaint with the Interior Ministry against El-Sawy Culturewheel, a cultural center that is the artistic home of many independent musicians in Cairo. The complaint alleged that the center was giving space to “Satanist” rock bands—heavy metal bands performing on the center’s stages and participating in metal festivals there. Interestingly, director of the centre, Mohamed El-Sawy, is known for his conservatism and for sympathizing with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideologies, but he was forced to defend El-Sawy Culturewheel’s purity and artistic value.

Around the same time as the El-Sawy Culturewheel incident, an attack on another music event took place in Minya, a city located 250 km south of Cairo. A group of Salafis interrupted the concert—an event organized by team of Christian and Muslim artists to promote religious tolerance and celebrate national unity. The Salafi group that forced the cancellation of the event claimed that it acted on religious grounds, stating that the concert was forcefully imposing Christian values on the audience.

Two years after the fall of Mubarak, and months after religious factions took power in the country, the situation is becoming increasingly tense—and not only on a social and political level in general. Together with hundreds of thousands of other protesters calling for democracy, artists in Egypt believe that the growing authoritarian regime of the Muslim Brotherhood is threatening too many personal freedoms, including freedom of arts and the media. But there is hope: Egyptians in creative professions—and a large part of the general population—are defying growing oppression from the Muslim Brotherhood and its expanding network at the highest levels of government and private and public institutions and organizations. While only time can show how culture and arts in the country will be protected, this year is not expected to be a bed of roses. Egypt’s culture scene will yet witness particularly strong confrontations with those who try to challenge it.

Ati Metwaly

Ati Metwaly

Ati Metwaly is a Polish/Egyptian journalist currently living in Egypt. She was co-founder and Editor in Chief of the first English language magazine on arts published in Egypt, The Art Review (2004-2009) and is now the Arts and Culture Editor of Ahram Online. Metwaly also writes a weekly critique for the printed newspaper, Al Ahram Weekly.

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