Down with the Cultural Elite! Long Live the Cultural Elite!

Article Summary
Egypt has gone through revolutions before, notes Mohsen Khodr. If history is any guide, a new cultural elite will replace the old one, which has now been tainted by its association with the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Silence is no less expressive than speech. Naguib Mahfouz suspended his creative work for five years after the July 1952 revolution. Mahfouz had finished writing his famous Cairo Trilogy (1956-1957) only days before the revolution. The Cairo Trilogy novel depicted the rise of Egyptian society after the 1919 revolution. But let's consider two other novels: The Beginning and The End (1950) and Midaq Alley (1947). In the first, the breadwinner of a family belonging to the small bourgeoisie dies and the family is left to face ruin and disintegration in a society with no social justice, where poverty crushes the poor. In the second story, “alley” refers to a small neighborhood or a narrow dead-end street. Naguib Mahfouz used it to describe the dead-end that Egypt faced at a time when social goodwill was almost nonexistent.

After contemplating revolutionary society for five years, Mahfouz produced his masterpiece, Children of Our Alley (1959) followed by novels from reality or critiques of revolutionary society with The Thief and the Dogs (1961) and Quail and Autumn (1962) and the rest of that series that spanned the mid-1960s. Perhaps the same thing is happening now - albeit with some differences - over the role of the Arab intellectuals during revolutionary times, and the crisis of the traditional intellectual elite after political activists pull the rug out from under their feet. The Egyptian January 25 Revolution, for example, has affected the legitimacy of many Egyptian intellectuals.

Former Minister Farouk Hosni used to pride himself that he had put the intellectuals in the "regime's camp" - especially through the role played by the Supreme Council of Culture and other tools such as state awards, publications by the Family Library [Maktabat al-Osra was accused of favoring the works of pro-regime writers], conferences, grants, and positions. An important part of Egyptian culture - especially the creative part - was eroded. Another part was excluded because some rebelled against the "regime's camp" - for example, the heroic stances taken by Mohamed El-Sayed Sa'id and San'allah Ibrahim.

In a meeting with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak with a number of intellectuals several years ago, Mohamed El-Sayed Sa'id presented a political reform program based on political pluralism, strengthening civil society, separating the head of state from the head of the ruling party, and enacting a new constitution. But Mubarak immediately chided him and called him an "extremist." In 2003, San'allah Ibrahim declined the Cairo Forum award for his novel and made a statement in the presence of the minister of culture saying that he could not accept an award from a corrupt regime. That incident caused an uproar at the time.

The Egyptian intellectuals before the January 25 Revolution where either domesticated, excluded, or had gone silent. The youths of the revolution have shot a symbolic bullet in the chest of the regime controlling Egypt for three decades. It was also a bullet of mercy for the Egyptian intellectual class, especially those involved with the regime and its media and propaganda tools. When we hear that the Ministry of Culture was secretly paying thousands of pounds to a major Egyptian intellectual for him to serve as an adviser to the minister, it reveals the state the intellectuals were in before the revolution. With regard to exclusion, many intellectuals who were opposed to the regime were blacklisted and banned from appearing on Egyptian television. The third group of intellectuals were stricken by despair. They were overwhelmed by the previous regime's corruption and tyranny and chose to stay silent. The transformation of the Egyptian intellectual elite after the January 25 Revolution has put the activists at the forefront of the cultural landscape. Not many still care about the old names. New creative types now hold titles like "the revolution's poet," "the revolution's singer," "the revolution's preacher," etc.

During other major societal shifts, the new intellectual elite often broke with the old one, if "intellectual" is meant as someone who cares about public affairs, critiques things, and tries to change them for the better. But the process of intellectual displacement does not happen suddenly. It happens gradually. Abdel Halim Hafez's voice expressed the revolution and displaced the voices of the previous phase, such as Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Abdul Ghani Al-Sayyed, Karem Mahmoud, and Farid al-Atrash. And major visionaries such as Muhammad Abdul Halim Abdullah, Amin Youssef Ghrab, Youssef Jawhar, and Ali Ahmed Bakathir were displaced by creative types [affiliated with] the revolution, like Youssef Idris, Fathi Ghanem, Gamal al-Ghitani, Abdel Rahman al-Sharkawi, and Lutfi al-Khawli. The same thing happened in the fields of journalism, music, film, literary criticism, and others.

When will the January 25 Revolution produce its creative types and thinkers? And what will happen to the cultural elite of the previous era, noting that renewal movements do not happen at the push of a button, but gradually?

Perhaps many intellectuals from the Sadat and Mubarak eras will have the same fate as Mustafa Lutfi al-Manfaluti. He was the most important and most popular Egyptian writer of the early 20th century. But after the 1919 revolution he lost much of his popularity because the revolution had spawned new values and challenges that went beyond his literature. The cultural landscape of the Egyptian revolutionary scene in crisis proves the truth of Che Guevara's slogan that "a rebel is the last to eat and sleep but the first to die." The Egyptian revolution has resulted in more than 1,000 dead and thousands of injured. That indicates that the revolution has and will continue to produce new intellectuals on the ruins of the traditional intellectuals, which the revolution has overtaken.

Found in: naguib mahfouz, hosni mubarak, elites, egyptian society, egypt, culture, arab intellectuals, arab

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