Take Them Out of the Ballgame

Egypt's Cultural Players in Crisis

by Samia Mehrez
published in MER219

On January 2, 2001, newly elected parliamentary deputy and Muslim Brother Gamal Heshmat submitted an inquiry to Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni concerning the publication by the General Organization for Cultural Palaces (GOCP) of three novels containing what the MP described as "explicitly indecent material amounting to pornography." [1] Within two days of the submission of the inquiry, the minister of culture ordered an investigation, whereupon his legal advisor conducted an "interrogation" of those responsible in the absent minister's office. The outcome was the formal dismissal of Muhammad al-Bisati -- editor of Literary Voices, the GOCP series responsible for the publication of the three novels, and one of Egypt's leading writers -- along with his managing editor, poet Girgis Shukri. (Both men had already tendered their resignations before the parliamentary crisis, due to bureaucratic disputes within the GOCP.) The next day, Prime Minister Atef Ebeid officially sacked Ali Abu Shadi, head of the GOCP, a man deemed by his peers, and Farouk Hosni himself, to be one of the most respected members of the institution. The first half of the latest match between Egypt's political and cultural players was over before the opposing team had a chance to suit up.

Defending his actions, Hosni -- whose title in the media for 14 years has been "al-fannan Farouk Hosni, wazir al-thaqafa" (the artist Farouk Hosni, minister of culture) -- joined the Muslim Brother Heshmat in labeling the three novels "pornographic." After withdrawing the three novels from circulation, Hosni dismissed media concerns about freedom of expression and the implications of his actions for proponents of fundamentalism in Egypt, saying: "Is everything the Islamists say wrong? I must defend society from cheap writing. My fundamental responsibility is to protect society's values from pornographic works." [2] In less than five days, Hosni conducted over 20 interviews on local and regional satellite television, on the radio and in newspapers. He reiterated his position as guardian of societal morality, challenged anyone who could allow his sister, his wife or his daughter to read such indecencies, reminded intellectuals that Egypt is not Europe, invited those writers who persisted in flouting societal values to go elsewhere and vowed not to publish any book or novel that contests religion or violates the values of society. This valiant stance in defense of morality won the artist/minister the complete support of the cabinet, as well as the blessings of the Islamists, who concluded that "the minister has repented." [3]

The Second Half

These radical punitive measures do not seem to have taken Egyptian intellectuals completely by surprise. Yasser Shaaban, one of the three authors charged with corrupting millions of young readers, saw the penalty coming. In a prophetic passage from the offending novel, Shaaban's narrator/writer satirizes the current logic and politics of censorship by incriminating himself:

I am so terrified of this game that I reread my novel, Children of Romantic Error, which I have yet to finish, and found in it what they can use as proof of Satanic worship. They will reduce everything to having sex in graveyards in the presence of the dead. Hence I will become a Satan worshipper. I will become the talk of the town. I will cause a lot of clamor. Even those who do not read will read me. It will be great, smashing, wild. The most important thing is to be part of the frenzy before it's over. [4]

All three authors became part of the frenzy, despite one literary critic's conclusion that "anyone excited by the prospect of reading these three novels in order to get a pornographic kick will be very disappointed." [5]

With the ball on their side of the field, the literati mounted a vigorous attack on Farouk Hosni, whose ministerial tenure is punctuated with foul plays from which he has always risen unruffled. Immediately following the outbreak of the crisis, a group of Egyptian intellectuals issued a statement entitled "Against Oppression and Censorship," criticizing the minister's position and declaring their intended boycott of the cultural activities at the Cairo International Book Fair scheduled to open on January 24. This threat was understood by the minister as blackmail since the Book Fair has become the icon of the alliance between the political and intellectual fields. A number of prominent Egyptian writers announced their resignation from positions in the Ministry of Culture, in solidarity with Abu Shadi and al-Bisati. Sawt al-Umma, the recently established independent weekly newspaper, published the minister's abstract paintings, some of which are laden with phallic symbolism. Gamal al-Ghitani, editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Adab, and one of the fiercest critics of Hosni's ministerial policies, revealed that the ministry was withholding from publication two parts of the diwan of Abu Nuwas, the controversial Abbasid poet, and that it has burnt large quantities that were already published. [6] Responding to Hosni's demand that writers who do not abide by society's values should go elsewhere, veteran striker Gamal al-Ghitani leveled: "No, minister. We shall remain and you will leave!" [7]

The Referee

On January 24, date of the annual presidential meeting with Egypt's prominent intellectuals at the Book Fair, President Hosni Mubarak blew his whistle, ending the game in Farouk Hosni's favor, and confirming the minister's media image as a professional player (wazir la'ib). Mubarak, who on previous occasions had sought to appease the literati by declaring that there is no censorship in Egypt, showed the rowdy cultural players a yellow card, reminding them of the rules of the game. While he encouraged intellectual freedom, Mubarak said, writers should also keep in mind "traditions, morality and religious considerations." There was no need for such a fuss over the sexual content of the novels, because the ministry would be more cautious in the future. Private publishing houses were free to publish whatever they liked as long as they remained within the boundaries of the law. [8] Game over. The losers went home, while the cheerleaders for public morality proceeded to pillage the Book Fair, confiscating books they deemed inappropriate, despite local and regional protests.

Name of the Game

This most recent confrontation between political and cultural figures in Egypt encapsulates the nature of their mutually dependent relationship since Muhammad Ali's modernization project (1805-1849) and the ensuing years of the nahda -- the cultural "awakening" in Egypt and the Arab world. To transform Egypt from an Ottoman province into a modern regional power, Muhammad Ali initiated a series of modern Western institutions within a traditional, Islamic cultural context that had been dominated by its religious 'ulama. From the start, the modernist paradigm in Egypt was dictated by the interests of political power: a military man's expansionist dreams whose armies required a modern infrastructure to support them. Over the past two centuries, those modern cultural institutions have produced the secular players within the cultural field. Their effectiveness, welfare and status have largely depended on the government's degree of commitment to the modernization project. Religious conservatives have continued to be a force for the political field to contend with given their historic access to and influence on "the masses," whose participation in the modernist paradigm was, and remains, not only absent but totally undesirable. In its attempt to weaken the traditionalists, the "modernist" political power could not afford to abandon the 'ulama's pre-modern paternalistic attitude toward the people. With the logic of "if you can't beat them, join them," the political field confirmed the dichotomy between the elite and the masses. Under Nasser, the state formally institutionalized and monopolized the cultural and the religious, adding an economic/ethical dimension to the symbolic relationship between the parties because both secular and religious players were transformed into civil servants.

For Egyptian cultural figures, this history has meant that the cultural is the handmaiden of the political and must always abide by its rules. The cultural has always been placed in a reactive position depending largely on the space it is granted by the political field in the latter's own calculations of power. The end result, of course, is the weakness of a modernist paradigm that is developed, produced and sustained from within the cultural field itself. Rather than seek independence from political players, cultural figures have sought protection; rather than spearhead criticism, they have demonstrated compliance. The cultural players become the protégés of the state so long as they are intelligent enough to respect the unpredictable boundaries of the political game. Those who do not, and they are less than a handful, are considered hors jeu.

Inversely, the accelerated control of civil society and civil liberties on the one hand, and the largely cosmetic political institutions on the other, have rendered the political field dependent on the cultural to articulate its semblance of modernity to the world. With its refusal to develop beyond modernization to modernism -- beyond modern signs in concrete to concrete signs of modernity -- the political field needs the cultural as the most important icon of its claim to be modern. Hence, the relationship between the political and cultural fields may veer from a semblance of partnership to one of total control, but within this framework the prospects of autonomy for the cultural field remain minimal. So long as the political field remains obsessed with its own power to the detriment of its own development, the cultural players will continue to be reminded -- should they forget -- that the cultural is political. This is the name of the game.

Preparing the Playing Field

Farouk Hosni is the perfect heir to this long history. His carefully chosen title, the artist/minister, itself embodies the relationship between the cultural and the political fields. The position Hosni has taken during the latest crisis surrounding the three Egyptian novels demonstrates his perfect understanding and acceptance of this double casquette: not the artist vs. the commissar, but rather the artist and the commissar, for within this framework they are one.

It is not haphazard that Farouk Hosni was handed the Ministry of Culture at the moment when the political and cultural fields began to warm up to one another. The Sadat period (1971-1981) had been marked by mutual froideur. The valorization of "village ethics" (akhlaq al-qariya) over the modernist paradigm led to the revival of conservative Islamist ideology. Sadat himself paid the highest price for his cultural politics, but there were grave repercussions in both the political and cultural fields: the assassinations of parliamentary speaker Rif'at al-Mahgoub (1990) and liberal intellectual Farag Fuda (1992), the attack on the Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1994), the Nasr Abu Zeid affair (1993-1996) and the assassination attempt on Mubarak in Ethiopia (1996), not to mention the various terrorist attacks all over the country. In its efforts to constrain the Islamist onslaught, above and beyond massive detentions, the political field attempted to reconstruct its gravely damaged global image and its seriously shaken internal one through the old ally: the secular players in the cultural field. The latter, targeted by the Islamists and infiltrated from within, accepted the alliance. Hosni, the cool and unconventional artist/minister, was the ideal architect of the political designs to reaffirm that the cultural is political.

The 1990s witnessed a face-lift for Nasserist cultural institutions. The very fact that the Mubarak regime decided to revive, rather than rethink, Nasser's defunct cultural machinery -- which had practically collapsed under Sadat -- indicates the political field's real designs for the cultural one. Farouk Hosni enlisted the country's major cultural players under the banner of enlightenment against obscurantism: a hasty and empty copy of the nineteenth-century nahda project that is, first and foremost, the political agenda of the day. State enlightenment, to use Nasr Abu Zeid's term, was set in motion. The General Egyptian Book Organization launched "The Family Library," an affordable series of reprints of major nahda figures under the patronage of the First Lady. The Supreme Council for Culture was resurrected, taking a lead role in the reintegration of cultural players within the institution. The GOCP and the ministry's cultural publications were revived. Prominent literary and cultural figures were appointed to editorial and managerial positions within the ministry. All this activity was crowned in 1986 with the annual presidential meeting with the literati at the Book Fair. No wonder that the artist/minister has, on more than one occasion, congratulated himself for having gathered all the intellectuals, except a few, back into the "coop."

The explosion in size of the dysfunctional Nasser-era cultural institutions generated a host of contradictions. In its dependence on its cultural players for a modernist image, the political field distanced itself from the role of the official censor while encouraging cultural figures to be their own censors. The boundaries of freedom of expression seemed to expand, but covert levels of censorship, motivated by political intimidation and rivalries among the secular civil servants within the cultural field itself, mushroomed and multiplied. The new laissez-faire nature of these institutions -- with expanded budgets and privileges -- led to an internal, informal privatization that parallels the regime's disastrous economic program. Secular cultural players were neutralized vis-à-vis the political field, they were mobilized in the latter's battles over power, and, last but not least, they were polarized against each other.

Last Season's Box Scores

It is against all this background that the Haydar Haydar affair that exploded in Egypt during April-May 2000 must be read. [9] Two factors came together to ignite the unprecedented controversy. Al-Shaab, the now defunct weekly newspaper of Egypt's Socialist Labor Party that, for purposes of survival, had struck an alliance with the outlawed Islamists, had an axe to grind with the political field: three of its reporters had been arrested on charges of slander against Egypt's powerful minister of agriculture, Youssef Wali. In the meantime, disgruntled writer Hassan Nour, whose works were being held up in GOCP's bureaucratic machinery, wrote a review of Haydar's Banquet for Seaweed -- then just reprinted in its eleventh (and first Cairo) edition by one of the GOCP literary series -- accusing the text and its author of blasphemy against Islam. The timing was perfect: al-Shaab used the crisis within the cultural field as a riposte to the government's oppressive measures against it and as a way to contest the regime's respect for public morality and societal values. Al-Shaab's campaign began with Muhammad Abbas's inflammatory, sermon-like article, "Who Pledges to Die with Me?" urging Muslims to rise up in defense of their faith and demanding no less than the Minister of Culture's head, along with the heads of those responsible for the publication of the "blasphemous" novel. The campaign led to a brutal confrontation between riot police and hundreds of student demonstrators from al-Azhar, Egypt's historic Islamic university, who had not so much as seen the "blasphemous" novel, let alone read it. The cultural players inevitably got caught in the middle of the showdown between the Islamists and the political field.

In this fast-moving game, the political field launched a series of impressively calculated strikes that evidently bore the imprint of lessons learned from Sadat's fatal strategies. Rather than crushing all other players at once, the political field opted for alternating strikes, thus ensuring its control over both the left and right wings of the field. The artist/minister, in the center field, first withdrew the "blasphemous" novel from the market and appointed a committee of experts to investigate the charges against it. Then, despite the experts' acquittal of the novel and its author, the artist/minister, under pressure from parliament, forwarded the novel to no less an authority than the head of al-Azhar, Sheikh Muhammad Tantawi. Capitalizing on the chance to extend his purview beyond religious matters, Sheikh Tantawi condemned the novel and its author, holding the minister responsible and demanding that al-Azhar oversee the ministry's publications in the future. It was a long shot. Stealing the ball from the Islamists, the State Security Department called in the editor and managing editor of GOCP's Literary Horizons -- the series that had published A Banquet for Seaweed -- and formally charged them with blasphemy. The final strike came from the government's Committee for Parties Affairs, which orchestrated a rather transparent contest over the Labor Party leadership, leading to the suspension of the party, the closure of its newspaper al-Shaab, and perhaps even the untimely death, in late March 2001, of Adel Hussein, the ex-Marxist secretary-general of the Labor Party, editor-in-chief of al-Shaab and foremost attack player on the Islamist team.
Last but not least, the controversy has instilled fear within the hearts of all the minister's men. The atmosphere of intimidation is movingly captured in Hamdi Abu Gulayyil's testimony after his visit to the State Security Department:

Since that day I have considered myself a criminal, a runaway criminal who expects to be arrested at any moment in an ambush. Fortunately, or unfortunately, ambushes in my case are well-known: they amount to what one writes or what one publishes. So, since that day I have tried to evade ambushes. I reread any story I write several times. Given the number of prohibitions and my inability to determine them I have resorted to a legal adviser, a young lawyer who is my neighbor. He reads every story I write and every book I publish especially when written by a naïve writer. My agony begins as soon as the book enters the print shop: the book contains a scene of a woman sitting with a man, the book contains someone who thinks, the book contains someone eating with appetite, the book contains people, and wherever there are people, there is sin. I dream, I hallucinate, and I am drowned in nightmares. Once my wife caught me completely dressed, at four o'clock in the morning, at the door of our apartment. I had imagined that one of the books in the print shop contained an indecent scene and was on my way out to stop the printing before morning. [10]

Lessons from Seasons Past

Besieged by an economic collapse, a stalemate in the so-called "peace process" and the prospects of unsettling parliamentary elections, the political field spent the hot summer of 2000 expanding its alternate strikes and isolating other potentially dangerous players, one after the other. First came the arrest and renewed detention of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, professor of sociology and pro-democracy activist, with a mind-boggling list of charges that included embezzlement and espionage (the perfect inhibition for defenders of civil society and human rights). Then came the daily detentions of "Islamists" before the "free" parliamentary elections (not a bad lesson for the suspended Labor Party and its paper). In all of this heat, the cultural players kept their cool, watching in almost total complacent silence, as civil liberties, basic human rights and freedom of expression were smashed.

In the meantime, the artist/minister, aligning himself with the cultural politics of the day, redefined the rules of the game: schedules of publication within the ministry were stalled and new forms of surveillance on the literary series were instated. In fact, the latest crisis surrounding the three Egyptian novels erupted precisely because al-Bisati, editor of Literary Voices, sidestepped the minister's new, unwritten emergency laws and published the three novels on the basis of merit, not on the basis of the ministry's "waiting list" policy. [11]

The arrival last fall of 17 of the outlawed Muslim Brothers in Parliament commenced a new game in cultural politics that was to leave the cultural players completely divided and disarmed after the crisis over the three Egyptian novels. The successful policies of polarization of the minister's men duly served the minister and discredited his men. Indeed, the same players that had stood in defense of the minister during the Haydar crisis, arguing that a work of art must be read and judged in its totality, were now describing the sexual passages in the three novels, taken out of context, as "blatant." Those who had defended the ministry's role in guaranteeing "freedom of expression" were now writing against it, calling for "responsible freedom of expression" that is informed by the writer's responsibility towards the law. The Writers' Union, which had issued a statement in support of Haydar's Banquet, issued another one condemning the three novels. Those who supported Egyptian writer Salah al-Din Muhsin against charges of blasphemy in March 2000 remained silent after he was sentenced to three years imprisonment in January 2001.

The irony in all of this is that no one reads these books. All 3,000 copies would have remained in the ministry's warehouses had it not been for the diligent hand distribution by the writers themselves to immediate friends, editors and critics. One journalist wrote a satirical piece telling writers that they should be grateful for the repeated crises surrounding books since it is the only way to expand the circle of readers beyond two: the writer and the censor. This dismal situation means that Mubarak wasn't playing fair in his comments to the literati at the 2000 annual meeting. Not only is private publishing completely crippled with problems of cost and distribution, but it is certainly far more vulnerable than the Ministry to the arsenal of laws that govern publication in Egypt, not to mention the recently renewed emergency laws that have been in effect since 1981. In this last crisis, Mubarak displayed his competence as veteran referee: his initial warning to the cultural players was followed by his recent announcement that there will be no changes in the cabinet, an uncontested ruling that Gamal al-Ghitani's violent shot on goal "No, minister. We will remain, and you will leave!" had fallen out of bounds.

During the crisis over the three Egyptian novels, Daoud al-Shuryan wrote an editorial in al-Hayat highlighting Egypt's weight in regional cultural politics and rightly arguing that:

The Arab cultural model is linked to the Egyptian one that continues to allow the public sector to dominate the written word, arguing that the private sector is not an alternative and cannot protect culture, when at the same time the private sector is entrusted with protecting the economy and the loaf of bread. [12]

Al-Shuryan asks whether the time has not come for the political field to renounce its jurisprudence over the written word. Given the nature of the game and the position of the cultural players within the field, the answer is a simple and straightforward no. The cultural is political.

Endnotes

[1] The three novels are Qabla wa Ba'd (Before and After), by Tawfiq 'Abd al-Rahman, a 61 year-old retired civil servant, Ahlam Muharrama (Forbidden Dreams), by Mahmoud Hamid, a 34 year-old civil servant in the Ministry of Culture, and Abna' al-Khata' al-Rumansi (Children of Romantic Error), by Yasser Shaaban, a 32 year-old psychiatrist/journalist. For a reading of the three novels, see Ferial Ghazoul, "The Artist vs. The Commissar," al-Ahram Weekly, January 25, 2001. For brief interviews with the writers, see al-Ahram Weekly, January 18, 2001.
[2] Al-Hayat, January 11, 2001.
[3] Al-Usbu', January 25, 2001. The figure quoted above is 'Abd al-Sabbour Shahine, perpetrator of the legal case against Nasr Abu Zeid. Shahine filed to divorce Abu Zeid from his wife, on the grounds that Abu Zeid's textual criticism of the Qur'an made him an apostate, and hence unfit to marry a Muslim. Abu Zeid and his wife eventually relocated to the Netherlands to escape the second, unfavorable verdict.
[4] Yasser Shaaban, Abna' al-Khata' al-Rumansi (Cairo: GOCP, 2000), p. 233.
[5] Ghazoul, al-Ahram Weekly, January 25, 2001.
[6] Al-Hayat, January 13, 2001.
[7] Gamal al-Ghitani, "Why Don't You Leave?" Akhbar al-Adab, January 21, 2001.
[8] Al-Ahram Weekly, January 25, 2001.
[9] For a detailed account of the Haydar affair, see Sabry Hafez, "The Novel, Politics and Islam," New Left Review, September-October 2000, and Max Rodenbeck, "Witch Hunt in Egypt," New York Review of Books, November 16, 2000.
[10] Akhbar al-Adab, January 21, 2001.
[11] This policy posits that 70 percent of the manuscripts published by GOCP in a given year must be written by writers from the provinces. Manuscripts from Cairene writers in excess of the allotted 30 percent -- regardless of quality -- go on the "waiting list" until the quota of writers from the provinces is filled.
[12] Al-Hayat, January 11, 2001.

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