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World & Nation

Artists say Egypt’s culture minister trying to quash free expression

Clashes outside Egyptian ministry of culture
Egyptian protesters chant slogans outside the culture ministry headquarters in Cairo on June 11. Artists complain that the new culture minister, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, is trying to impose an Islamist agenda and restrict artistic freedom.
(Khaled Elfiqi / EPA)

CAIRO — Artists and writers protesting in downtown Cairo are calling for the resignation of Culture Minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz amid accusations that the Islamist-led government is attempting to impose restrictions on the country’s art scene.

Concerned about the future of freedom of expression, dozens of prominent artists, including film director Khaled Youssef, novelist Bahaa Taher and actor Nabil El Helfawy, have been staging a sit-in outside the Egyptian cultural ministry since June 5.

“The intellectuals, writers and artists inside the ministry announce their rejection of the minister, appointed by a religious fascist regime, who has embarked on a plan to destroy national culture,” the artists said in a group statement.

Abdel-Aziz has fired at least five ministry officials since his appointment in a cabinet reshuffle in late May. Protesters accuse him of trying to force the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious agenda on the ministry. The Brotherhood, which controls the government, and more ultraconservative Salafis have been steadily attempting to exert their influence on the lives of Egyptians.

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The protest has turned into a series of nightly street performances designed to challenge statements by conservatives who want to limit creative expression.  Supporters of the sit-in recently shared a video of the Cairo Opera House ballet company performing excerpts of the musical “Zorba.” The showing was to counter demands by Islamists that Abdel-Aziz ban ballet performances.

Among those officials dismissed by Abdel-Aziz were the head of the Cairo Opera House, the director of the Egyptian general book authority, and the director of the ministry’s Fine Arts division. Abdel-Aziz has repeatedly denied the accusations against him, saying he is trying to diversify the ministry and purge it of corruption.

Abdel-Aziz has denied ties to the Muslim Brotherhood or its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. He told Al Masry Al Youm newspaper that a faction of  “leftists and Marxists” had monopolized artistic circles at the expense of other voices.

Several Islamist movements and political parties hailed Abdel-Aziz’s actions.

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“The culture ministry and many other cultural institutions were not only monopolized by leftist ideology, but by Marxist ideology as well for many years,” said Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Ahmad Aref on the Al-Nahar satellite channel. “The ex-regime believed this to be a lung that some intellects used to breathe and gain some social stature and exposure through cultural institutions, monopolized by one ideology and one color.”

The vice president of the Salafist Al-Watan party, Mohammad Nour, told the Egypt Independent news site last week that the culture ministry protesters should be tried on charges of “corrupting thought.” He said that for years Egyptians have been exposed “only [to] the most permissive and decadent of arts.”

A complaint has also been filed against the protesters with the general prosecutor’s office accusing them of obstructing work at the ministry and insulting state figures.

Al-Watan, as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, had called on other Islamists through Facebook and Twitter to help them disperse the sit-in. Supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist-led government recently clashed with protesters outside the ministry. A prominent Brotherhood supporter and activist, Ahmad El Mogheer, was injured during the violence.

The sit-in, however, has persisted, with demonstrators vowing to join what are expected to be nationwide anti-Morsi protests on June 30, the one-year anniversary of his presidency.

“The [Brotherhood] do not want culture because they are against writers and against creativity as a whole,” publisher Mohammad Hashem told Ahram Online on June 4, calling on intellectuals to unite against attacks on their freedoms.

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Hassieb is a special correspondent.


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