Old Egyptian hieroglyph
Old Egyptian hieroglyphic painting showing an early instance of a domesticated animal (cow being milked). © From 1000 Fragen an die Natur, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1948.
Old Egyptian hieroglyph
Goos Hofstee
Last updated: August 3, 2012

On art and Islamists in Egypt – an interview with Heba Farid

When in January last year, thousands of people gathered on Tahrir Square to protest against the regime, one of the words that was heard everywhere was horeyah, ”freedom”. Mostly of course, this meant political freedom, such as the right to have open and fair elections and the freedom to express controversial political opinions. However, to have political freedom, there has to be freedom of expression, and nowhere is this more vital than in the arts.

Under Mubarak, not only were public challenges to the regime not tolerated in the political arena, there was also a limited freedom of expression in the liberal arts. Someone who knows firsthand what it was like to be an artist under the former regime is the Egyptian multidisciplinary artist Heba Farid, who still lives and works in Cairo.

“There was a real monitoring system from the government that controlled everything, from the visual arts to theatre productions and literary publications.” says Farid. “Often, undercover agents from the government would go to an opening of a new exhibition and check out what kind of work the artists had produced. If their work didn’t go with the government’s view of what constitutes appropriate art or culture, the artist would be pressured to take down the pieces.”

Under Mubarak, while artists were free to create whatever they wanted, they were certainly not allowed to exhibit anything that the government did not agree with. “It wasn’t officially called censorship, but it certainly was in reality.”

Now a year and a half into the political transition in Egypt, a lot has changed. The departure of the dictator has encouraged artists to shake off decades of censorship, and opened up space for more criticism of the cultural and political status quo. Subjects that were off limits for a long time, like poverty, corruption or repression can now be treated without wrapping them in opaque allegories and double entendres.

At the same time however, other deeply conservative forces have emerged that are now trying to censor the arts in different ways. Today, artists who produce culturally sensitive work are at risk of being boycotted, censured or worse, by conservative Islamist groups. This new reality in Egypt and the cultural policies of the Islamists signal a shift in censorship from political issues to social and cultural taboos.

“After the revolution, it has gone in two different directions”, Farid says, “on the one hand there has been this new freedom, with critical images of the military popping up everywhere, and on the other hand the cultural sphere has become much more narrow with the Islamic factions trying to enforce their cultural norms.”

The official Muslim Brotherhood party line is that the Freedom and Justice Party will not attempt to curtail the artistic freedom in Egypt. Mohsen Radi, one of the party's representatives in the People’s Assembly, stated on the Ikhwan English language website that “freedoms of the art are a right that will certainly be guaranteed by the forthcoming constitution and that there will be no restriction of art and creativity”.

However, both previous record on social and cultural issues and more recent statements and actions indicate that the reality of a powerful Islamist bloc may well mean something very different for Egypt’s artists.

“It is a real concern for us. In a way, the Mubarak regime did protect our secular society, and that protection is now gone. In that sense, artists had it better under Mubarak than now that the Islamists have come to power,” says Farid.

Social issues and control of individual expression in public – be it verbal, on paper or on canvas – have always been a major part of the Islamists’ agenda. Even during Mubarak’s reign, the Islamists in Parliament – then “independents” – devoted most of their energies to bring up cultural or media issues. They lobbied extensively to introduce legislation that would ban not only books and works of art on the basis of their so called “indecent nature” or “obvious sexual references”, but also called to ban concerts that featured female singers.

Now Mubarak has gone and the Islamists are no longer repressed by the political elite, they have become significantly bolder in voicing their objections to “sinful” art. Salafi leader Sheikh Abdel Moneim el-Shahat  recently accused the late Naguib Mahfouz, Nobel Prize winner and national treasure, of “inciting promiscuity, prostitution, and atheism” in his works. However, not only do the Islamists try to ban these “corrupting” influences, they also actively try to reform society by promoting their own Islamic artistic vision.

Earlier this month, the Brotherhood launched a project called Cinema Ikhwan, collecting short films by young artists to be uploaded onto a dedicated YouTube Channel. The only criteria posed by the Cinema Ikhwan team for the films is the creators’ will to advance “Egypt’s religious awakening and maintain the moral principles of the Egyptian people.” Yasser Said, a media student and member of Cinema Ikhwan, told the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm last month that “The Brotherhood strives to create a meaningful art form to serve as an alternative to the art which attempts to corrupt our culture and customs.”

But how far will the Brotherhood really get with all this? The recent political developments that brought Islamists the presidency and significant power in parliament mean that for the first time, the Brotherhood will actually have to rule. After spending most of their existence in the underdog position, this is a whole new game for the Islamists, and one for which the rules are far from clear. In spite of the internal divisions that characterize the Islamist bloc, it is likely that they will try and push for stronger social and cultural control and a limited freedom of personal expression not only in public life but also in the arts.

How far an Islamist alliance in parliament will be able to push its socially conservative agenda, most experts agree, depends on two factors. First of all, they will have to deal with the military, which still holds most power in the political arena, and which has traditionally been a force for secularism. Second, there is the general public. While the Islamists have gained a large proportion of the Egyptian vote, many voted for them as a protest against the remnants of the old regime, as represented by Ahmed Shafiq. Many people who did vote for the Islamists out of ideological reasons may not be as conservative as the stricter members within the Brotherhood and Salafi parties, and those people may well be unhappy if the Islamists try to push control and conservatism too far.

So, taking all this into account, do the writers, the painters and the poets that are reviving the Egyptian cultural scene really have to fear for severe censorship or even a Saudi style “cultural police”? Heba Farid is undecided: “I think this religious resurgence will certainly last more than a few years, and it will have to play itself out. On the other hand, the religious component of the government, basically the Muslim Brotherhood in power, is already heavily criticized left and right. We will have to wait and see how they develop and what it means for our freedoms.”

However, while she is worried about the recent developments and about the future for artists in Egypt, Farid has no intentions to back down. “My idealism tells me that now is the moment to stay.”

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