Culture, State and Revolution

by Sonali Pahwa , Jessica Winegar
published in MER263

The Arab uprisings have brought major challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities, to the culture industries. According to a flurry of celebratory news articles from the spring of 2011 onward, protest art is proliferating in the region, from graffiti in Egypt to hip-hop in Morocco to massive photographic displays and political cartoons gone viral in Tunisia. These articles then adopt a predictably ominous tone to express the concern that resurgent Islamist forces represent a danger to arts and culture writ large.

Two fundamental aspects of this emerging cultural politics are frequently overlooked: the support for culture industries in mainstream Islamist circles and the underlying structural transformation of the relationship between arts and the state. The story is not simply one of liberation from authoritarian states, new desires to criticize such states or Islamist threats to freedom of expression. Rather, there are complex shifts in the overlapping cultural and political fields. Changes in the cultural scene are not simply a barometer of broader political and economic change, but part and parcel of it, particularly in countries with strong, centralized ministries of culture, such as Egypt, Syria and Tunisia. In these places, the dominant state ideology poses culture as a path to progress and enlightenment. In this moment of opening, cultural producers, intellectuals and politicians are asking foundational questions about the role of government in the field of culture and vice versa. Egypt, the most populous Arab country and thus a bellwether of sorts, is a case in point.

State Involvement in Culture

President Gamal Abdel Nasser founded the Egyptian Ministry of Culture in 1958, based on the French model, but also shaped by the experiments of various Eastern Bloc countries with centralized production and dissemination of culture -- meaning literature, music and other fine arts, often with an explicit message. The major goals at the time remain central to the Ministry’s mission today: to define the nation and national identity; to protect cultural patrimony; and to uplift the so-called masses by exposing them to the arts. To these ends, the Ministry employed legions of artists and literati who often did works in line with nationalist goals of the regime. Many, for example, were sent to document the building of the High Dam. The Ministry also built or renovated museums and arts centers throughout the country, and, as in France, hundreds of “culture palaces” in small towns and villages. Many of today’s Egyptian artists, particularly those from provincial or lower-class backgrounds, got their start in these places. Yet what seemed to many in the cultural field to be a promising beginning soon devolved into decades of disappointment. Nasser’s successor Anwar al-Sadat pushed the Ministry to the brink of dissolution. The regime of Husni Mubarak pulled it back, but artists and literati increasingly felt that the Ministry’s bloated bureaucracy, corruption and not so subtle demands that art conform to dominant nationalism were killing the chance of attaining the cultural vibrancy and widespread interest in arts and culture promised by the state earlier.

In the months following Mubarak’s downfall, there was intense debate over the question of dismantling the Egyptian Ministry of Culture completely. Some argued that, given its wretched performance in key areas, it should be abandoned. This view holds little traction, however. The majority of those in the cultural scene, and perhaps more important, the majority of those who partake of state cultural offerings, would be distressed to see the Ministry of Culture disappear. The issue for these people is instead how to fix a broken institution. The commitment to state support for culture remains strong, even amidst the opportunities for government reorganization that might be afforded by the ongoing revolutionary process.

What are ministries of culture good for, according to those who support them? From one of the most prominent leftist perspectives, they are good for fostering the creation of artistic offerings, plain and simple, and regardless of the market appeal of those works. Some say that state support leads to greater artistic freedom, particularly in less commercial arts, because it shields artists from market pressures and allows audiences to see works they might not see if venues operated according to pure consumerist logic. Others counter that the state has an interest in supporting art that fits a political agenda or that state employees direct funds to their own art and that of friends and relatives. The solution that some Egyptian intellectuals have raised to these problems seems promising: Ministry selection committees would include a majority of members from outside the state apparatus and members would regularly rotate on and off. Members would hail from different generations.

Corruption must be weeded out, a tall order indeed. In the decades when state cultural institutions administered large budgets without oversight, public money was regularly misappropriated or siphoned off for the projects of the cronies of powerful administrators. But the revolution has tipped the scales against toleration of corruption and opened channels for protesting it. Whether such protests will result in effective change depends in part on the shifting relationships between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches. Anti-corruption initiatives in the cultural sector could grow through partnerships with campaigns in other sectors of the government.

Many cultural producers contend as well that ministries of culture play an important role in protecting national patrimony. They say that this role should not be left to corporations, lest access to patrimony be subject to high admission fees or treasures sold outside the country. The Egyptian government has indeed performed abysmally in this realm. Paintings were left to rot in the basement of the Museum of Modern Egyptian Art; original reels of cinematic classics molded in cardboard boxes or were sold to foreign buyers; Pharaonic antiquities were stolen. And then there is the authoritarian cult of Zahi Hawass, the former minister of antiquities who claimed personal discoveries of artifacts in his one-man shows on the Discovery and History Channels and was reputed jealously to guard access to archaeological sites. But Egyptian cultural producers look to Europe, where there is relatively easy public access to the arts, for models of patrimony management. They argue that if the Ministry of Culture had more resources and managed them better, then Egypt’s cultural endowments would remain intact, in Egypt, for all Egyptians to enjoy. Discussions about how to make Ministry operations more transparent, and how to forge more collaboration between the government and private foundations, may well bring such strong protections of patrimony to fruition.

Finally, culture ministries’ proponents point to how they reach underserved audiences, particularly outside major cities. Visitors to Egypt’s 550 state-run “culture palaces” are often struck by three things: No private cultural institution is to be found in the town and villages where they are located; the people who partake of the state’s offerings are often quite enthusiastic about them; and the institutions are grossly underfunded and, in many cases, mismanaged. Many frequenters of these institutions are women and youth, eager to learn new things and keen to build communities outside of the home. On nights when there is a theater performance or visiting dance troupe, for example, the places are abuzz with families on what they clearly consider a major outing. Other culture palaces, of course, are not as active; the employees, faced with extremely low budgets, have often lost passion for their work. But the moribund institutions are normally in far-flung locales, and the Ministry has an apparatus for traveling programs. Again, the circulating suggestions for increased funding, more transparency in allocation and use of funds, and better training of arts administrators could make the existing system much more active and professional. There could be higher standards for incoming cultural sector employees to ensure that they have sufficient background in their chosen field.

There are numerous counter-arguments to these defenses of the Ministry of Culture, and some criticisms are voiced by the Ministry’s supporters as well. The issue is not black and white. But one need only look at the United States to gain understanding of why many Egyptians want to keep state support for culture even as they recognize the challenges. Public funding for the arts in the United States is anemic compared to European countries, in part because of the influence of neoliberal economic ideology. An artwork or artistic medium must be popular or marketable in order to survive. Most artists in the US struggle in multiple low-paying jobs in order to keep doing their art, and studies show that many give up. This cultural policy has dampened creativity, as well as wide interest in the arts, in the US. In a country like Egypt, which has equal if not greater levels of class and geographic inequality hindering artistic production and consumption, the extreme market model of culture makes little sense. That is why today -- in the hundreds of Ministry of Culture institutions, as well as coffee shops, living rooms and other intellectual meeting points -- there is a vibrant conversation about how to build a new cultural policy that succumbs neither to the market nor to state corruption, propaganda and inertia. There are new initiatives, new discussions about public-private partnerships and attempts to change the relationship between independent artists and the state, all of which suggest the beginnings of a structural transformation in the field of culture.

Independent Arts and the Public-Private Relationship

At the turn of the twenty-first century, independent Egyptian dramatists petitioned for their right as taxpaying citizens to apply for public funding that previously had been reserved for state troupes. These dramatists had come of age at a time when state theaters were overstaffed and had few jobs to offer. Working outside of state institutions was a necessity, but it turned out to have many virtues. The independent troupes occasionally won small production grants and access to performance space from the state, but stayed free of the bureaucracy at state theaters. Intriguingly, despite their lack of reliable rehearsal space and smaller budgets, independent troupes went on to produce lauded plays that frequently represented Egypt at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater and traveled to theater festivals abroad. Their model of artistic independence with state support offers a possible program for the post-revolution Ministry of Culture.

Freedom from censorship and bureaucratic control was not enough to produce true artistic independence, the most successful theater troupes found. They also needed financial support in order to create imaginative work with more than formulaic market value. Their quest to produce popular culture, outside the definitions of that term in state cultural ideology, is an instructive example of how independent cultural production can draw upon state support to represent and engage with popular concerns.

Theater troupes formed by university students or graduates of amateur troupes at the cultural palaces reached varied audiences with fresh, topical plays staged in accessible venues. The state theaters, in sharp contrast, put on European and Egyptian literary classics in buildings designed as temples of high culture. Independent dramatists wrote about ironies of contemporary life and social tensions, aiming to entertain audiences while provoking thought. Their popular aesthetic styles were closely linked to a perception of themselves as citizen-artists, rather than high priests of theater or professionals demonstrating sophisticated dramatic techniques. These organic intellectuals won far more popularity for theater than mandarin administrators of state theaters, with their elitist and somewhat outdated vision of the art. Were the state theaters to fund and host these independent troupes, they could capitalize on the revival.

There is already a state theater that has experimented with this model: The Hanager Experimental Theater was established in Cairo in 1988 to accommodate a wave of youth theater. It soon acquired a stellar reputation. The visual arts gallery at Hanager also, in its early days, featured independent and innovative art, such as the first exhibition of video art in Egypt. It was a striking exception to the Ministry of Culture’s rules: Headed by a university professor rather than a state bureaucrat, Hanager was intended as an extension of campus theater. With a single manager and a minimal staff, the playhouse was a friendly, non-bureaucratic institution where independent dramatists felt welcome and which theater aficionados considered a second home. Its patronage was also somewhat feudal, as decision making rested with one person, the manager. In the spirit of the post-revolution era, however, a committee could govern Hanager, one allowing for participatory programming and including younger dramatists and critics.

Dramatists, as well as musicians, visual artists, poets and craftspeople, have also embarked on a major initiative, in light of the ongoing revolution, that tries to democratize the arts even more, in addition to establishing new models of public-private partnership. Al-Fann Midan (Art Is a Public Square) is a monthly festival held in various urban centers around Egypt. It is part of a set of revolutionary artistic activities that attempt to rework the relationship between art and the state such that the state offers funding but avoids subsuming cultural production under any particular government’s economic and political agenda. Al-Fann Midan was initiated by the Independent Culture Coalition of artists and arts professionals, some of whom have experience in government institutions, and others who had been part of earlier attempts to reshape cultural policy in Egypt, for example al-Mawrid al-Thaqafi (Cultural Resource). Al-Fann Midan has brought new audiences to the arts and new artists to public visibility. It enjoyed significant support in 2011 from the Ministry of Culture, when Emad Abu Ghazi was head of that body. Abu Ghazi subsequently resigned in protest of state violence, and the new Ministry reduced funding. But the organizers want this successful event to be Egyptian-funded, from both public and private sources, and remain immune to the dictates of either. A new Ministry of Culture could continue the diversified model of state support for art -- providing funds without an attached agenda -- that was sanctioned by Abu Ghazi.

Can independent artists thrive without a ministry of culture? The question is worth considering after decades when these enterprising citizens learned to make do without state support. The Egyptian playwrights Ahmad al-‘Attar and Hasan al-Giritli, for example, were badly burned by censorship or capricious funding from the Ministry of Culture. They were subsequently successful in funding their performances through private sources, as they had worked in Europe and were able to tap resources there. Most Egyptian dramatists, however, could not think of applying for grants from foreign festivals or foreign cultural centers based in Egypt, because they were not avant-gardist in a way that these organizations recognized. Indeed, their commitment to the role of citizen-artists made their art so contextual that it was difficult to translate for foreign audiences. National funding was the logical source of support for small-scale, local theater made by independent artists. In the post-revolution era, a more representative parliament must revisit received definitions of the artist who merits state support to include younger and less formally trained citizens, if it is to aid cultural production that has a popular audience. The question, then, is not just whether independent artists or arts initiatives such as al-Fann Midan can do without the Ministry, but also whether the Ministry can maintain its stature without endorsing independent artists.

Revolution’s Challenges

The paramount concern for most Arab cultural producers is the relationship between religion, state and culture. For those who are secular-oriented, a crucial function of ministries of culture is to combat what they view as misguided (read, conservative) interpretations of Islam. When Egypt’s first democratically elected Parliament in decades held its first session in January, the arriving Islamist majority was met by a large group of protesting artists, fearful that the Islamists would outlaw freedom of expression in Egypt, rendering it a cultural backwater. This anxiety, ironically, was redolent of the Mubarak era. But the emergence of religiously oriented cultural producers and advocates on the scene signals a potentially major transformation of the relationship between state, culture and public in Egypt.

Democracy was not a hallmark of Egypt’s Ministry of Culture under Mubarak, though the institution cultivated an image of liberalism. The former culture minister, Farouq Husni, saw European-style avant-garde arts festivals as a way of integrating Egypt with international arts trends. He inaugurated international theater, dance, and fine arts festivals and biennials. Husni’s policies opened up the market in artistic production. Yet creative freedom in the Mubarak era was closely guarded, supporting what were viewed as Westernized genres of creativity, which the culture minister deemed appropriate for a globalizing nation building its international trade and fighting what was viewed as a backward Islamist front at home. This cultural policy, begun in earnest in the 1990s, was markedly different from what came before.

Meanwhile, the Ministry never loosened its controls over local artistic production, particularly in the fields of literature, film and cinema. Independent theater troupes grabbed the opportunity to perform at the Cairo International Festival for Experimental Theater, but could not sell tickets to their shows outside the festival grounds or solicit funding without paying to register as corporations. Censors shut down several plays on opening night, if they criticized the political or religious establishment or spoke openly about sex. The censor’s scissors clipped many a film, and a few works of fine art were removed from display.

The Ministry also walked a fine line between seeking to challenge social mores and appeasing Islamist commentators, who were reaching a growing audience through independent media. In regular cases since the 1990s, the Ministry caved in to pressure from religious authorities to ban a book or film that Islamists had brought to public attention for elements they considered blasphemous (most famously in 2000 with the controversy over a state publishing house reissuing Haydar Haydar’s novel A Banquet for Seaweed).

Cairo’s thriving community of independent artists nevertheless saw the Ministry of Culture as a resource and even a savior. Its enlightenment discourse gave educated, urban intellectuals such as these a place at the vanguard of social reform. Many of them believed, moreover, that culture should reach the masses and that the wide network of state institutions was far better equipped for outreach than private circuits. Artists working after the heyday of state cultural institutions often experimented with ways of reaching the people without all the bureaucracy and ideology. In roundtable discussions and newspaper articles, they cast “the people” whom they wished to enlighten as tradition-bound, obsessed with morals and in need of progressive ideas. Meanwhile, Islamist youth groups gaining popularity on university campuses competed with the secular-oriented artists in teaching progressive thought in an Islamic vein and supporting arts that further Islam. In the context of a powerful state-supported ideology (mainly in the cultural sector) of conflict between Islam and secularism, in which the Ministry of Culture played the roles of mediator and guardian of peace, religious and secular-oriented intellectuals tended to see each other as enemies.

With the post-revolution rise of the Muslim Brothers as a force inside and outside Parliament, the antagonism in the cultural field has only intensified. The Supreme Council of Culture was reconstituted after the revolution without a single Islamist member. In protest, the Muslim Brothers formed Hawiyya, a body of Islamist literati meant to serve as a parallel Supreme Council. The Brothers argued that their cultural body was more representative of popular tastes. “The standard Muslim Brother argument is that if a book or article offends religion, the people themselves will not want it published,” asserts literary critic Muhammad Shu‘ayr. Established secular-oriented literati have been skeptical about cultural programs that they perceive as pandering to popular conservatism. There is considerable evidence of Muslim Brother support for arts and culture, such as the fact that one of the six chapters in the 2007 Muslim Brothers party platform advocates a “cultural renaissance” through arts, literature and literacy. Certain young Brothers oppose censorship and many are artists and writers in their own right. The standard secular-oriented responses to these facts are to claim that they are a ruse or to imply that the desire to make art in line with dominant religious values is aesthetically backward. But in the revolutionary era, Hawiyya’s self-proclaimed role as defender of popular cultural values (which it imperiously claims authority to define) is generating a broader debate about cultural elitism, which provides an opening to imagine a new Ministry of Culture that is indeed representative of a range of cultural values in Egypt.

Such a reimagined Ministry of Culture must account for the fact that Egyptians draw cultural references from religious texts, Muslim and Christian, no less than from European artistic traditions. Just as censoring art in response to (some) opposition from religious leaders is foolish, so is censoring art that is in explicit engagement with religious values and traditions. Indeed, devout Egyptians have mixed religious and secular cultural forms for years. In the early years of the Muslim Brothers, their magazine al-Da‘wa (The Call) often published scripts of original one-act plays with an Islamic theme. In the contemporary era, the Brothers have supported theater troupes that called themselves Islamic in Egypt’s governorates, just as several Coptic churches host popular drama companies. Past decades have witnessed poets and novelists working to create a modern category of “Islamic literature.” Today, the largest student club at the Cairo College of Fine Arts (counting around 1,200 members) explicitly promotes Islamic values through art making. Cultural production with religious values already exists; it remains only to be recognized by state cultural authorities.

Secular-oriented intellectuals, however, continue to hold positions of power in state institutions for art, theater and publishing. Their arguments that art and literature are alternatives to rigid religious belief, and that all Islamists are enemies of creativity, have only gained fervor after the rise of Islamists in elections. A spring 2012 lawsuit by a salafi lawyer against veteran comedian ‘Adil Imam, for his negative portrayals of Islamists in classic films, confirmed many in their fears of growing artistic unfreedom. But while many are rightly concerned that the existing variety of artistic expression will be quashed if certain interpretations of religion become dominant, the current moment invites a revisiting of the relationship between religion, art and public that might create more openings than closures. Indeed, the anti-Islamist ideology evident in Imam’s films, and propagated casually by the likes of media tycoon Naguib Sawiris (charged with blasphemy for posting online a picture of Minnie Mouse in a face veil), is a remnant of the culture wars of the Mubarak era, when secular-oriented intellectuals freely denigrated the devout and Islamists fought their political and cultural marginalization through legal channels. A new Ministry of Culture can give cultural producers who wish to foreground Islam more equal representation in state institutions, thereby creating opportunities for debate “across the aisle,” so to speak, rather than kneejerk silencing. Islamists are certainly not uniform in their views of art and culture. Reforming national cultural ideology through the Ministry of Culture is the best bet for mending the secular-religious divide fostered by state institutions under Mubarak.

Younger generations of secular-oriented artists, writers and dramatists have their own grievances with the Ministry of Culture, arising from exclusion from positions of power in state cultural institutions. But these artists have not made common cause with the Islamist literati, which is ironic since young activists reached across religious divides to oust Mubarak. The Mubarak-era cultural policy -- to promote arts that sidelined religion and were palatable to Western curators and critics as a defense against Islamism -- gave these junior intellectuals more cultural authority than their religious peers and they were keen to maintain the distinction. With the post-revolution rise of Islamist parties, a secular-oriented group organized the Egyptian Creativity Front to protest religiously motivated policies against artistic freedom and highlight instances of censorship by Islamists. Writers and artists with secular beliefs voice their individual fears of Islamist takeover through social media. They are apprehensive that the new Ministry of Culture will impose a narrow ideology, much like the old, but this time with an Islamist program. They have never known a non-authoritarian Ministry of Culture, and it is difficult, in their view, to conceive of how such a ministry would propagate culture with high aesthetic value. Yet the struggles of independent artists and groups to form more democratic cultural institutions have already thrown up more promising alternatives for the future of the Ministry and the overall relationship between culture and politics.

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