CAIRO — For years, intellectuals have debated the Egyptian regime's belief in the importance of art and culture in the fight against terrorism. Now, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has launched the National Council to Fight Terrorism and chosen prominent theater and television actor Mohamed Sobhi as one of its members.
The decision came July 26, and by Aug. 2, the Zahma news website cited intellectuals who questioned Sobhi’s membership and the government’s seriousness in activating the role of culture and art in fighting terrorism, claiming that Sobhi’s presence on the council or the council as a whole are only public relations moves.
“The council will not have an active role; it will only be for show. Fighting terrorism will remain a mission for the army and the Ministry of Interior," poet Rifaat Salam told Zahma.
Indeed, many of the council's tasks do not focus on how to fight terrorism intellectually. On July 31, after communicating with several members of the new council, newspapers published articles that clarified the main tasks the president assigned to the council. The duties include the following security and legal tasks:
- Coordinate between religious institutions and security services to enable moderate religious discourse to fight extremist ideology.
- Study the laws on terrorism, their shortcomings and how to fix them.
- Upgrade the system of cooperation between all security and political bodies and the international community, especially neighboring countries, and establish a special regional entity between Egypt and Arab countries to coordinate with the security agencies concerned with combating terrorism.
- Follow up on precautionary procedures and monitor the funds of terrorist entities and terrorists.
Also, the council has a diplomatic and international assignment, which is to develop the necessary plans to introduce the international community to facts about terrorist organizations and the role of some countries and organizations in supporting terrorism against Egypt.
Economic and social tasks include developing plans to create jobs in areas where extremism prevails, establishing industrial zones and studying the possibility of granting soft loans to those who prove they have renounced extremist ideology.
The council also has an educational task: identify the main points for developing educational curricula in a way that supports the principles of citizenship and coexistence and the renouncing of violence and extremism.
One general task may be applied to the state’s cultural and artistic bodies; that assignment is to adopt a comprehensive strategy and programs for all governmental bodies to confront terrorism and extremism both at home and abroad.
Despite the overwhelming security aspect of the council's functions and the lack of cultural, artistic and intellectual tasks, Sobhi said in a press statement July 26, “I have agreed to join the council immediately. It is our duty and an honor. Forming this council reflects real awareness of [the need to] confront terrorism.”
On July 28, El-Watan newspaper cited Sobhi as saying, “This is the first time the state has made a conscious move to fight terrorism by bringing together clerics, the minister of education and intellectuals in a single council, because fighting terrorism will only be properly achieved through education, religious scholars, art, culture and the media.”
Nashwa Dib, undersecretary of parliament’s Committee on Culture and Information, told Al-Monitor, “No one forced the president to include the education minister, intellectuals and religious scholars, and he would not have done so unless he believed in their importance in countering extremist ideology.”
She added, “This was not a formality. If this were the case, the president would not have chosen intellectuals who could bring something new to the council such as Sobhi, poet Farouk Jwaideh and former Minister of Culture Mohammed Saber Arab; he would have only selected government officials.”
Dib further noted, “The presence of intellectuals on the council is necessary because the most important weapons to fight extremist ideology include implementing cultural activities all around Egypt, especially in areas deprived of awareness and cultural work and so on. The publication of books that reject the terrorist discourse could also help, in addition to organizing artistic performances that enlighten those whose minds were plagued by obscurantist ideas.”
For his part, Shawkat al-Masri, a professor of modern literary criticism at the Academy of Arts, which is directly affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education, told Al-Monitor, “Intellectuals and artists are already represented on the council by Sobhi and Arab, so it was not necessary to bring in the minister of culture himself. However, we should question the importance of this council, particularly since many past experiences have proved that national councils are bound to fail, such as the National Council for Women, among others.”
Former President Hosni Mubarak established the National Council for Women in 2000. It seeks to help empower women, but the group has been harshly criticized for failing to make significant progress toward that goal.
Ammar Ali Hassan, a political science professor at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “I expect security decisions and solutions to dominate the council’s agenda because there is no indication of the current regime's belief in the importance of culture and art in the fight against terrorism. The proof is that the council’s tasks and functions mainly revolve around security.”
Ali Hassan added, “Even the function of empowering moderate religious discourse has been linked to coordination between clerics and security officers, which will make security even more dominant in this mission, which is a negative sign. Security solutions are important at the moment, but cultural and intellectual solutions are the long-term solution.”
A Ministry of Culture source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the council doesn't want to include a current member of the ministry, which is involved in artistic censorship.
“The censorship authority for artistic works, affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and headed by Deputy Minister for Artistic Affairs Khalid Abdul Jalil, has poor relations with artists. It has prevented many films from being shown, such as ‘18 Days,’ and deleted numerous scenes from works of art such as ‘Jawab Eitikal.’ This is why the presence of a representative from the ministry was not welcome, because the council is supposed to play an important role in communicating with artists and intellectuals.”
He added, “Sobhi, Arab and Jwaideh will play a key role in mobilizing artists and intellectuals and using their future work to counter extremist ideology. Thus, Sobhi will have a prominent role because of his good ties with artists and the respect the majority of them have for him.”
The source continued, “However, being on good terms with artists will not make Sobhi’s job any easier. Many artists will object to his task for fear that art and culture will be subjected to the state’s decisions, although mobilizing artists and intellectuals through their works and standing beside the government in fighting extremist ideology is necessary to eliminate terrorism.”