Last Friday, a historic book market in the Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria was destroyed by Egyptian security forces, leaving kiosks in shambles and the streets littered with rare and valuable manuscripts. Political figures and activists were swift to denounce this mindless destruction of Egypt’s cultural heritage, demanding that President Mohammed Morsi take action against the governor of Alexandria who ordered the raid. The governor, for his part, deflected the criticism, claiming that the vendors were operating without a permit.
The ransacking in Alexandria represents the latest in a series of attacks on Egypt’s intellectual and cultural life that is being perceived as a “war on culture,” which, as observers have pointed out, raises serious questions about the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to certain essential characteristics of a democratic political order, such as freedom of expression, thought and ideas. But, importantly, the consequences of these forays into Egypt’s creative life reach beyond its borders. Restricting freedom of expression in Egypt could potentially kill Cairo’s ambitions to regain its leadership role in the Middle East and its reputation as the cultural powerhouse of the Arab world.
Egyptian cinema, traditionally the most vibrant such industry in the region, has seen some of its brightest stars either sent to prison or subjected to public defamation in recent months. Adel Imam, Egypt’s most famous comedic actor, was convicted of “offending Islam” in some of his past character roles and was sentenced to three months in jail in April of this year. More recently, a conservative Salafist cleric accused a renowned actress on public television of having committed “on-air adultery,” adding that she was “cursed” and would “never enter heaven.” This prompted President Morsi to hold a meeting with a small circle of prominent artists and intellectuals at his presidential palace, during which he stressed the important function that creative artists serve in the new Egypt, adding that he opposes unfounded slander of any kind. For many, however, the damage had been done and a number of movie stars refused to attend the gathering.
Egyptian cinema flourished during Nasser’s rule in the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s in particular. Cairo’s movie boom was due largely to its ability to act as a vehicle for Nasser’s pan-Arab vision, in addition to being an important way to support the 1952 revolution that put Nasser in power by spreading anti-aristocracy and pro-nationalist (read: anti-imperialist) messages. But eventually Nasser’s vision died, and with it, Egypt’s monopoly on pop culture.
Even still, this was not before the spread of Egyptian movies and music made the sound of the Egyptian Arabic dialect common everywhere in the region and had firmly cemented Cairo’s position as the cultural hub of the Arab world. Today, Egypt still holds what is essentially a monopoly over movie-production companies and consulting firms, and Egyptian actors and actresses are in high demand. President Morsi will not be able to restore to Egypt the regional prominence it enjoyed under Nasser if the arts that were so important to that power are not allowed to thrive.
The Egyptian music industry, too, was an important aspect of Egypt’s regional influence. From the intoxicating orchestral ballads of world-class singer Um Kalthoum to the contemporary pop music of Amr Diab, Cairo has always been an epicenter of Arabic music. Like the film industry, the musical scene has also come under fire in the new Egypt. An FJP lawyer last week filed a lawsuit against the El-Sawy Culture Wheel musical venue in Cairo’s affluent Zamalek neighborhood, accusing it of hosting heavy-metal concerts that featured “Satanic rituals.”
The preeminence of Egypt’s creative arts has also helped contribute to Cairo’s popularity as a destination for tourism from other Arab countries. Egyptian government sources explicitly cite Cairo’s hosting of artistic festivals, such as the International Song Festival and its International Film Festival, as one of the most important sources of tourism, a sector widely recognized to be the country’s largest source of income. In 2010, two million of Egypt’s tourists, representing 12% of the total, came from other Arab countries.
News reports last week indicate that the International Film Festival’s censorship committee, in preparation for its 35th yearly event scheduled for later in 2012, has already banned a number of movies due to sexual themes and nudity, despite them occurring to degrees which were permissible in the past. High levels of censorship could provide a disincentive for submissions, decreasing the festival’s overall prestige.
Finally, repressing artistic life and restricting freedom of expression in Egypt is likely to discourage ingenuity, innovation and creative thinking, all of which are indispensable elements of an overall thriving society. The FJP risks removing the motivation and incentive for citizens to think creatively and to engage in the arts for fear of reprisal, censorship, or perhaps even prosecution. Moreover, those who are innately creative and determined to pursue careers in the creative arts may indeed quit the country, bringing about a mass exodus of talent from the banks of the Nile and leaving the country barren, deprived of originality and intellectually lethargic. Egypt would then be incapable of maintaining what has become an important pillar of its traditional regional leadership.
All of this would mark an unfortunate development for a nation with a well established tradition of pioneering the arts, and would compromise both the individual freedoms sought through the 2011 uprising and the FJP’s expressed goal of returning Cairo to its role as a regional leader. President Morsi and his party will have to decide for themselves what the new Egypt’s cultural mores and norms will be. Egypt’s democratic transition and the country’s regional dominance depend on it. The new government in Cairo has an obligation to its citizens to guarantee that creative freedom is among the freedoms enshrined in the country’s new constitution, or else Egypt’s cultural heritage will be destroyed just like another Alexandria library was more than a thousand years ago.
Alexander Brock is a research associate for the Middle East department at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Fulbright scholar in Cairo, Egypt.