No room for art in Egypt

No room for art in Egypt
Comment: A vicious crackdown on popular art spaces in Egypt days before the anniversary of the 25 January Revolution reaffirms the role of art as resistance, writes Mohamed ElMashad.
5 min read
12 Jan, 2016
The Rawabet theatre was raided by 20 government agencies in one day [AFP]
Amid the ambivalent outcomes of the January 25 Revolution to date, there are still some enduring and absolute positives.

While nostalgia for "the 18 days" stakes claim to many of these feelings of positivity, some of these feelings have escaped the confines of memory, and found a place in everyday habits and practices within society.

The arts have been definitely one such avenue of exploration, as the period following the revolution witnessed an explosion of expression by visual and literary artists.

Whether they were inspired directly by the revolution or not, it was definitely a culprit. It is not so much that art was not previously being abundantly produced in Egypt, it is just that, for decades, since Nasser really, artistic production had been so tightly stifled by state agencies that any kind of deviation from state scripts had always been relegated to the margins.

The final days of 2015 witnessed a foreboding crackdown on some of downtown Cairo's most well-known and active art spaces - that happened to not be supported by any government bodies.

The Townhouse art gallery and the adjacent Rawabet theatre were raided by a cohort of 20 representatives of government agencies, including the Office of Artistic Products Police Department, the Tax Authority, the National Security Agency and the local office of the Ministry of Manpower.

After questioning employees, confiscating computers, photocopying IDs, and detaining everyone for a few hours, the employees were released and the venues shut down.

Given the very healthy state organisation representation, and the lack of explanation over the raids, one could deduce that it must have been one of a host of reasons that was behind the shutdown: tax evasion, labour violations, organised crime, or art that kills.

However, the gallery and the theatre have become one of the oldest operating spaces for contemporary art.
These raids do seem to fall in line with a string of recent events

Having operated openly in the middle of downtown Cairo since 1998, Townhouse has became an institution. Outside the gallery and theatre, the street cafes are bustling with human rights and political activists, journalists and artists.

This entire area has become an almost instinctive meeting point for many. 

With the commemorations of the January revolution fast approaching, many meeting points and spaces that could ignite some sorts of activist sentiment so close to Tahrir Square are troublesome to officaldom.

Dar Merit publishing house was also raided and closed, with one of the employees saying he was specifically asked by security agents what the political agenda of the house's books were.

Politically, these raids do seem to fall in line with a string of recent events such as the series of timely crackdowns on journalists and the censorship of some newspapers.

The government is definitely preparing for the 25 January anniversary by tightening security and issuing veiled threats against would-be protesters, as well as announcing plans for expanded welfare networks and many other government promises.

It always seems that in Egypt, and the Arab world in general, it tends to be quite difficult for art spaces to completely transcend the barriers and regulations put in place by the ruling regimes. In an almost arbitrary fashion, at a time when the ruling regime barriers are higher and more foreboding than ever before, this tends to resonate deeply in public art spaces throughout the country.

In September 2015, the head of the actors' syndicate was granted the power of arrest over those violating the syndicate's laws. That same month, the musicians' syndicate announced a ban on "revealing clothing", and then just last month, actually banned six singers - all women - from the union for that very reason, meaning they would not be allowed to perform anywhere in Egypt.

Of course the High Committee of each syndicate have almost absolute authority in deciding when the power of arrest should be used, or when a woman's clothing - for obviously this "rule" will only ever be applied to women - is too revealing.

Even the acquittal of artists under trial carry with it an undertone of menace to anyone who dares step out of line, even when they are clearly in line.

Novelist Nadje al-Alli was acquitted after going on trial on charges of "harming public morality" after publishing advanced passages of his forthcoming novel in a government newspaper - despite the fact that the novel had already passed the censors.

Bassem Youssef, the political satirist, was recently exonerated of a previous ruling forcing him to pay around $15 million to his employer who had allegedly taken him off the air.

Both of these individuals were essentially driven to the edge of ruin, in ways that friends of the regime seem to frequently escape.
It is about time Arab governments graduate from the Cold War era mentality of controlling culture

So, as not to comment on the validity of legal adjudications - as that would be against the law - suffice to say that contemporary and innovative popular artistic production is in danger of being pushed back into the dark again, due to the seemingly routine and random pinpointing of venues that could possibly, maybe host some anti-regime sentiments.

Rights organisations have also reported raids on the Cairo Image Collective and the Zero Production Company in November and August.

Significantly, soon after Mubarak was ousted in 2011 activists and artists came together to put together a bi-monthly street art festival named Fan Medan, about 10 minutes' walking distance from Tahrir Square. It was promptly shut down by the interior ministry.

Whether for morality, "security", or purely legal reasons, it is about time Arab governments graduate from the Cold War era mentality of controlling culture - if for no other reason than the fact that it is not feasible given communication technologies these days.

The continual imposition of draconian rules to limit art spaces will only breed new and more creative ideas.

For many in Egypt who lived through and believed in the January 25 revolution, artistic expression is one of the last ways remaining to say exactly what and how they feel without feeling that they just compromised their security.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists' book, Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.