Several weeks ago, President Morsi appointed a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, as Minister of Culture.
Initially, this sparked concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood intended to ‘purge’ Egypt’s cultural scene by installing Islamists into influential positions in the Ministry. These concerns were quickly dismissed by the government as absurd.
Yet in just few weeks, the new Minister has fired the heads of the Cairo Opera House, the Fine Arts Sector and the Egyptian General Book Authority. The Minister also attempted to fire the head of the Academy of Arts, but the law states that he can only be fired by a Presidential decree.
The sackings were yesterday followed by the resignation of the Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Culture, Said Tawfik, over what he called “a plan to destroy Egyptian culture.” The Supreme Council for Culture is arguably one of the most important parts of the Ministry, as it is responsible for setting policies and organizing activities.
In a show of support for those who were sacked, workers and artists at the Cairo Opera House cancelled a planned opera show – Aida – and announced a strike in solidarity with the sacked head of the Opera House and to protest the ‘Brotherhoodization’ of Egypt’s culture.
As the curtains opened, the audience was surprised to see artists and employees of the Opera House holding signs against the recent decisions by the Ministry. The artistic director and principal conductor of the Opera House then stated, “In solidarity with Dr. Ines Abdel-Dayem, head of the Cairo Opera House, and with respect for her role, we, the artists and staff of the Cairo Opera House, have decided to refrain from performing the opera Aida tonight. This is the first step towards halting all the activities of the opera house until the removal of the culture minister, who has been making arbitrary decisions against prominent leaders in the ministry, in an attempt to change the identity of this country.”
Yet the audience was not upset. They did not ask for refunds – which were offered by the Opera House. Instead, they supported the decisions of the artists, as even the audience feels that Egypt’s cultural and arts scene is under threat.
Today, rumours and reports indicated that the Minister may appoint Noor El-Din (known as Khamees), a television host on the Muslim Brotherhood Channel Misr 25, as head of the Opera House. Khamees is often featured and mocked on the popular satirical television show, Al-Bernameg, by Bassem Youssef. Though these rumours will likely prove untrue, it is concerning that his name has even been floated by the Ministry as a potential candidate.
The government needs to act quickly and decisively in response to the Minister of Culture’s recent decisions. Appointing a member of the Muslim Brotherhood as Minister was a decision that signals an intrusion in Egypt’s cultural sector, which Islamists may see as a threat. If the President truly claims to represent all Egyptians, then he should appoint Ministers that are also representative of all Egyptians.
The art of storytelling – whether it be through paintings, opera shows, songs or books – is at risk. Attacking people’s ability to freely express themselves through art would ultimately betray what millions of Egyptians desperately called for in 2011. The future of an art that has been practised for thousands of years is uncertain, but one thing is for sure: Egyptians should not and will not allow this continued intrusion to occur.