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Entertainment & Arts

Egyptian authorities raid a pair of cultural spaces amid fears of free-speech crackdown

The Townhouse Bookshop in downtown Cairo

A door to the Townhouse Bookshop in downtown Cairo, which was closed as part of what many believe to be an administrative crackdown on independent arts organizations in advance of the fifth anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

(Maram Mazen / Associated Press)

Two important independent cultural venues in Cairo were raided by Egyptian authorities earlier this week in what has been construed by some activists as a crackdown on spaces that promote free expression. 

Townhouse Gallery and its affiliated Rawabat Theatre were raided on Monday evening by officials from various municipal ministries, including the censorship authority and the tax authority. Workers there told the Associated Press on Wednesday that officials forced them to show photos on cameras and play movies found on their computers. The authorities then shut down the gallery after confiscating CDs, flash drives and other items.

This was followed by a similar raid on Merit Publishing House, which is known for putting out experimental and other avant-garde work. Authorities detained volunteer Mohammed Zain for several hours of questioning then released him.

Merit founder Mohamed Hashem told Mada Masr, an independent English-language news site based in Cairo, that the raid may have been triggered by the upcoming publication of a controversial book by journalist Sharaf Abdel Shafy. The publishing house also has a January reading scheduled in support of Saudi poet Ashraf Fayadh, who has been sentenced to death for cursing God.

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“If they want to scare us because of the noise we cause for them,” Hashem told Mada Masr, “we will continue to be noisy.”

Hashem told Mada Masr that the raid was officially prompted by a complaint that alleged that the publishing house was operating without a license.

If they want to scare us because of the noise we cause for them, we will continue to be noisy.
Mohamed Hashem, founder of Merit Publishing House, Cairo

The raid on Townhouse Gallery was also said to be for administrative reasons.

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“All the entities that came in yesterday were administrative not security agencies,” Yasser Gerab, Townhouse’s outreach director told the English-language news site Ahram Online. “The representatives looked at the documents and pointed to a few things that were incomplete, and after we sort them out, we will soon start running the place again.”

Townhouse is an internationally recognized exhibition space that has operated since 1998 and has featured works by Egyptian and international artists. In 2008, the gallery joined with New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art on that institution’s “Museum as Hub” series, which brought together various international organizations for presentations, dialogue and curatorial exchange.

While the raids were administrative in nature, the New York Times reports that free-speech activists are concerned that these shutdowns could be a way of stymieing any possible unrest in advance of the fifth anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak on Jan. 25.

“They are scared of Jan. 25,” one activist told the paper.

Hashem, in the meantime, remains defiant. In a Facebook post quoted by National Public Radio, he wrote (in Arabic) that he continues to “dream of a homeland of life, freedom and social justice.”

Maram Mazen of the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.


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