Learning to walk after crawling

For confidentiality reasons, I won’t mention names or details in this account, although the incident is not uncommon: It represents a frequent and well-known pattern.

In May, a non-governmental Egyptian cultural institution organized a workshop with generous funding from one of the foreign cultural institutions that operate in Egypt. The workshop was aimed at creating dialog between the Egyptian entity and a similar Europe-based institution. Meetings were set with the purpose of exchanging experiences over the course of several days in Cairo. The foreigners arrived, they sat with the Egyptians and they talked. They had tea and coffee, then they left. The Egyptian institution duly submitted its reports and invoices. The person in charge in the foreign institution put these into a media file alongside news of the workshop, which only a few people knew about. He submitted reports to his superiors in Europe, who in turn included them in their own reports to parliaments and supervising authorities so they can rest assured that democracy is still alive and well, and that as European peoples they are practicing their role in spreading enlightenment, progressiveness, and the values of dialog, cooperation and denouncing violence.

European countries are thankfully keen on collaboration in the cultural field. They have state and non-governmental cultural centers representing them in Cairo, sometimes in other cities across Egypt. These centers have certain intellectual and legal aims. Their programs must include participation by the countries these centers represent, for instance. The result is what Egyptian intellectuals sometimes refer to as “European centralism,” which is another name for cultural exclusion.

A look at the names of intellectuals and artists who attend festivals and similar events — whether before or after January 25, 2011 — is enough to see that those with a European orientation are the majority. This is because Europe invests in the intellectual space while we do not have sufficient funds to be active in that field. Even if funding were available, there is no legal or legislative framework to regulate, facilitate or support cultural institutions’ operations and enable them to secure funding from a variety of sources.


It was beautiful and gratifying to see how Egyptian intellectuals rushed after January 25 to attend ateliers. Discussions and conferences were held around how to liberate artwork and restructure the Culture Ministry. Plans and recommendations were presented, but life went on until Saber Arab was appointed minister in December 2011 and that’s when it all ended. But it was interesting to see that the heads of local cultural institutions were the most active in drawing up these plans and engaging in parliamentary sessions, administrative and policy meetings to discuss how to restructure the ministry.

The ministry unquestionably suffers from major problems, with capacities and capabilities that could be much better put to use. Since the January 25 revolution, more than any other time, this state of affairs needs to be questioned and reconsidered.

But what about alternative cultural institutions: Who holds them accountable for their choices, expenditures or agendas? I do not mean by accountability a disclosure of accurate figures on funding sources, expenses, and the percentage that goes on employee salaries and benefits. At the end of the day this concerns the sponsoring entities and those with the money. But while we know the budget of the Ministry of Culture, the gross total of wages paid to its employees, and what is spent on actual activities, we have zero information on the internal working regulations, wages or budgets of non-governmental cultural institutions, nor do we know what percentage is spent on actual cultural activities. This is not our money though, and as long as “independent” cultural institutions and those behind them continue to dominate positions of leadership and decision-making, as they have done since the time of long-standing former Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, refusing to let us in on what’s going on, we will not ask.

Egyptian artists will complain about the amounts they receive for their participation in the various cultural events these institutions organize. But at the end of the day they will accept, as there is no other outlet that can embrace and support them. This situation means these institutions — especially in the fields of music and contemporary art — play an alarming role in relation to artistic evaluation, which is manifested in the choice of artists, shows and programs they support.

Most of the recommendations presented by intellectuals and heads of independent cultural institutions for restructuring of the Ministry of Culture revolved around the idea of liberating the ministry’s ownership and breaking down its grip in favor of decentralized planning and a freer management structure that is more in touch with contemporary social movements. Surprisingly though, none of the heads of non-governmental cultural institutions who presented those suggestions thought of ways to implement them in their own institutions.


Alternative cultural institutions have played other roles as well. They took advantage of what followed the 25 January revolution to timidly break into the public sphere, expand beyond centralization in Cairo, and take their activities out to the streets. The short-lived period of exuberance and optimism that ensued after the 25 January revolution was filled with support from European Union countries in aid of cultural development, with special focus on “Arab Spring” countries. But these programs continued to maintain the same agendas and terms, chief among them the condition that projects be implemented with a European partner.

The issue is not just about the inescapability of partnerships reinforcing the predominance of European cultural centralism. Often it is also about complying with the wants of the European partner on the cultural level and what they would like to see. Following the 25 January revolution, there was a surge of interest in graffiti. Books, studies and films were made, and workshops were held to bring together graffiti artists from Egypt with their European counterparts. In the rush of cultural institutions to respond to a European infatuation with the revolution, its art and graffiti, anything was on the table — even if that meant transforming what was supposed to be street art into exhibitions in closed rooms.


Government policies, especially in Europe, tie culture to development processes. Targeted aid thus comes under the provision of “cultural development.” This association has resulted in these institutions having to utilize the forms of art they support to serve a developmental purpose. This also has an impact on the artists, as a developmental dimension must play a fundamental role in his or her project, at least on paper.

This year, Townhouse celebrated its 15th anniversary. It has been 10 years since Al Mawred Al Thaqafy was established. Both have played an active and influential role in the cultural scene over the past decade. Their impact is not limited to what they have offered through their programs; it also includes their continuous and ongoing support of dozens of cultural and art projects and institutions.

Cultural institutions are no longer nascent experiments that only deserve encouragement. Funding is no longer a sensitive issue and the bugbear of the intellectuals of the 1960s generation — they are now busy supporting Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Funding is now a major constituent in the economies of Egypt’s art and culture industry, just as donations and loans from other countries constitute an essential factor in the economy of the Egyptian state.

This article was originally published in Arabic on Akhbar al-Adab in May 2014.


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