(Photo taken from video by Hazem Azmy)
As TCG Circle readers know, Egypt has undergone a second revolution, begun and largely orchestrated by artists. In her upcoming TDR article “The Fire and the Frying Pan: Censorship and Performance in Egypt,” Nehad Selaiha outlines the history of artistic censorship in Egypt – both government-imposed, and self-imposed. Government-imposed censorship reached new heights in June 2013 when the newly-appointed Minister of Culture Alaa Abdel-Aziz fired the head of the Cairo Opera House, the head of the Egyptian General Book Authority, and the head of the Fine Arts Sector in part because he wanted to replace them with MB cronies; in part because he wanted control over their artistic policies and choices. Cairo Opera house artists rebelled. On 5 June Conductor Nayer Nagi announced:
“In a stand against a detailed plan to destroy culture and fine arts in Egypt we abstain from performing tonight’s opera.” On 7 June, Al-Akhbar Daily reported that Isam El-’Iryan, a leading figure in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has branded a number of journalists, artists, and intellectuals “pro-Western atheists and secularists who have betrayed the religious creed of the Egyptian people” (2). The same accusation was made at noon from the pulpit of a mosque in Madinet Nasr, Cairo. In an email to the author, Selaiha wrote: “this is a dangerous turn of events: such accusations can be understood by militant Islamists as a fatwa to kill ‘those infidels’ with impunity, thus virtually sanctioning the killing of artists and intellectuals” (7 June).
In response to this climate of artistic intervention, artists occupied the Ministry of Culture, demanding that Abdel-Aziz be removed from his post. Every evening, performances were staged in front of the Ministry: screenings of ‘Uyoon Al-Horreya (Eyes of Freedom) and 18 Days – two films about the Egyptian revolution; concert by the Iskenderella pop group; street performances by artists from Ismailia city; and Nesma Abdel Aziz on Marimba playing one of the signature 25 January revolution songs (Izzay by Mohamed Mounir).
There was also a special performance of the ballet Zorba the Greek by stars of the Cairo Opera Ballet, who continued their strike. Islamists declared ballet haraam (sinful and forbidden by God), calling it “a vile Western art that encourages licentiousness through its display of the ‘naked’ female body.”
Popular chants at these public performances included: “Is ballet haraam?” “No!” “Is poetry haraam?” “No!” “Is photography haraam?” “No!”
On 11 June Islamists attempted to attack the artists in front of the Ministry. Noted scholar Hazem Azmy reported that: “The slogans chanted by Islamists spoke about defending ‘legitimacy’ against self-serving ‘secularists.’ This is a reference to Abdel-Aziz as well as to President Mursi, both under tremendous public pressure to step down. The attackers chanted slogans that accused the sit-in protesters of being the remnants of the ‘Fold,’ a term that Mubarak’s long serving Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni once used to describe intellectuals enjoying the patronage of the state. In a reference to Abdel-Aziz’s recent controversial decisions to replace the top officials at the Ministry with pro-Islamist ones, the ‘supporters’ adopted a ‘revolutionary’ discourse and called upon the embattled Minister to proceed with his proclaimed crusade against ‘corrupt’ elements” (email to author). Fortunately, the police intervened to create a barrier between artists and Islamists, and there were only a few minor injuries. On other evenings, neighbors threw caramel candy from their windows to show support for the ongoing protest and performances below.
On 15 June artists in Alexandria began their own sit-in at Beiram El-Tonsi theatre to support their colleagues in Cairo. On 16 June “500 members of the 26 specialized committees of the Supreme Council for Culture held a conference at the council headquarters in the Opera grounds in solidarity with the sit-in of artists at the Ministry of Culture and in protest against the ‘Ikhwanization’ [a new word derived from the name of the Muslim Brotherhood - Gama'at Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen - which means reshaping anything according to the extreme views of the 'Brotherhood'] of Egyptian culture” (Al-Akhbar Daily, 17 June, 2013, p. 2). On 21 June the Writer’s Association passed four motions:
“1. To withdraw confidence from President Mohamed Mursi and call for early Presidential elections.
2. To call for an interim government of national consensus that includes representatives of the various national, political and ideological stripes.
3. To insist that those responsible for the bloodshed and the martyrs who gave their lives for the Revolution, including the martyrs of Tahrir Square, the Ittihadeya Presidential Palace, and the Port-Said Stadium, be brought to account.
4. To call for a Constitution worthy of Egypt’s constitutional history and expressive of the hoped-for national agreement.”
Finally, on 30 June, nation-wide protests led by the grassroots movement Tamarrod (meaning “rebellion”) were, according to the BBC, the largest demonstrations in history. Morsi was removed from office, 5 Ministers resigned, and the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court has replaced Morsi as interim leader until the next set of elections can be held.
The Washington Post and CNN portrayed this artist-driven revolution as an anti-democratic “coup.” Several journalists expressed particular anxiety about the fact that Egypt’s military supported the Tamarrod movement. So now, Egyptian artists have begun a campaign to explain to US journalists why this is not a coup. One amusing Facebook post reads: “‘This Is Not Democracy’…Bite Me!” On Thursday 4 July Al-Tahrir newspaper printed a front page message to Obama that reads (in English): “It’s a revolution…not a coup.” The most recent response is a fully articulated letter to Obama, Congress, and by extension, the US mainstream media:
Message to the Obama Administration and The US Congress
From The Egyptian Artists and Intellectuals at The Ministry of Culture Sit-In
(Translated by Nehad Selaiha)
While the US administration poses as the arch sponsor of human rights worldwide, it regrettably persists in practicing a policy of double standards and systematic lying to the world and the American people.
This policy of systemic lying and glaring, outrageous deception is nowhere more apparent than in its misrepresentation of the over-30-million-strong mass street protests of the Egyptian people in cities, towns and villages all over the country on 30 June, asking for a peaceful end to the fascist rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a military coup d’état and a transgression against legitimacy.
The Egyptian people will not easily forget the attempts by the US Administration and other parties to defy their popular, free will and abort their revolution – a revolution for which many have sacrificed their lives.
However, we, as free intellectuals and artists who represent the conscience of the nation and as the vanguard of the opposition against military rule throughout modern Egyptian history, would like to put the following facts before the US Administration:
The Egyptian people gave the Muslim Brothers and their leaders a full opportunity to run the country and achieve the goals of the 25 January revolution and only came out on the streets in protest when the MB and their leaders rushed through a deeply flawed constitution, followed, with amazing speed, by a sudden, suspect ‘constitutional declaration’ that gave Mohamed Mursi sweeping powers, making all his decrees, resolutions and administrative decision immune, unquestionable and irrevocable, thus virtually establishing him as sole, absolute ruler.
Add to this the MB’s policy of exclusion and the accelerated attempts to empower their members by placing them in all key positions – a policy that has come to be called the ‘Brotherhoodization’ of the state.
Worse still was the MB’s direct incitement to hate against Egyptian Christians, which resulted in many sectarian clashes, and their similar incitement against Egyptian Shias, which culminated on 24 June, 2013 in the brutal killing of four citizens, including a prominent Shia figure, in the small village of Zawyat Abu Musalam in Giza governorate. By promoting hate speeches by clerics against Christians and Shias in public, ex-president Mursi must be held responsible for such outrageous crimes.
Such policies have exacerbated the deterioration of the economy, leading to spiraling prices, the plummeting of the purchasing power of the Egyptian currency, electricity, fuel and water shortages and a steady rise in the rate of unemployment. Though all forces across the political spectrum urged the MB to relinquish the exclusionist policy that led to this dangerous situation, the MB turned a deaf ear to their advice and obstinately persisted in pursuing the same disastrous course.
To avert disaster and the total collapse of the country, Tamarrod, a peaceful, grassroots movement, called for early presidential elections. Over 20 million Egyptians endorsed this call with their signatures and ID numbers. When Mursi and his Brotherhood rejected this call, the great Egyptian people had no alternative but to depose him. It was a purely popular decision with which the Egyptian Army had nothing to do. The role of the Egyptian army, as indeed it has itself emphatically affirmed, is confined to protecting the country.
The US Administration, however, following the example of Mursi and his fascist group, still persists in misreading the situation. It is a shame that the US Administration should sponsor terrorism and fascism while claiming to promote human rights worldwide. While the MB is now subjecting the Egyptian people to the worst forms of terrorism, shedding Egyptian blood on the streets, the US Administration continues to politically support it in the name of legitimacy and democracy.
We, as Egyptian intellectuals and artists opposed to all forms of fascism, would like to tell the American people that the pro-MB position adopted by their Administration in defiance of human rights in the current situation in Egypt would make their country primarily responsible for precipitating a crisis in the whole region. Such a position does not only constitute a black page in history of humanity, it also marks the United State as the world’s primary sponsor of terrorism.
Finally, the US Administration has to realize that the free youth of Egypt will never forgive it if it persists in opposing their will. Though the wise among the intellectuals and artists of this nation have so far succeeded in containing the youth’s anger and averting a slide into violence against the countries that oppose their interests and demands, the persistence of the US Administration in supporting the fascist MB may soon push the situation to a dangerous brink where the voice of reason will not avail. This is what we fear and warn against.
Erin B. Mee has directed productions at New York Theatre Workshop, the Joseph Papp Public Theatre, the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, HERE, and The Ontological at St. Mark’s. In addition, she has directed two productions in India with Sopanam, one of India’s leading theatre companies. She is the author of Theatre of Roots: Redirecting the Modern Indian Stage (2009), co-editor of Antigone on the Contemporary World Stage (2011), and editor of DramaContemporary: India (2001). She teaches Dramatic Literature at NYU.