Close to Tahrir Square, at Takayeeba café, an independent artist friend of mine and a theater director were sitting around a small tin table that barely had room for the cheap coffee cups on top of it.
I was surrounded by a group of young people whom I’d gotten to know properly only recently due to living abroad, and they were all busy discussing the details of the upcoming El Fann Midan event — the program, security clearances, equipment, funding and so on.
A few months after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, El Fann Midan seemed to be an ambitious step to unfetter art from closed halls and elitist alienation to thrive in public spheres already bustling with revolutionary vigor. Organized in various public squares across Egypt by volunteers from the Independent Culture Coalition, and supported through donations from its members and other interested people, the monthly free-of-charge event cracked a hole in a long-enduring cultural siege laid by the Egyptian government, whereby artists and intellectuals were subject to “play the game,” and the public sphere was largely inaccessible due to security measures.
During my occasional visits to Cairo over the two following years, I was lucky to have the opportunity to attend several El Fann Midan events in Abdeen Square. The program included diverse activities such as music concerts, poetry recitals, visual street arts, book signing events and even circus shows. Performers engaged for the first time with public audiences just a stone’s throw from the columns of tanks barracking, until very recently, in and outside Abdeen Palace.
The last time I was there, while sitting on the sidewalk waiting for a friend who was in a meeting to finalize preparations for the event taking place the following day, I discerned from afar the tense expressions on the faces of his group. My waiting was extended for few more hours. The situation finally came to an end after nightlong phone calls and heated discussions.
Despite a visit by then-President Mohamed Morsi to Abdeen Palace, due to take place at the very same time as the event, the sidewalk meeting eventually succeeded in getting permission to go ahead. This was of course after threats of escalating the event into protests if it were it canceled for security reasons.
Then in October, for the first time in three years, all El Fann Midan activities were indefinitely suspended owing to authoritative obstacles to issue security clearances. A few weeks later, Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy — the organization where my friend works — announced a freeze on all activities and the closing of its office in Cairo, also due to the increasing antagonistic state attitude toward civil society. The fate of the programs and activities run and funded by Al-Mawred, founded 10 years ago by a group of Arab artists and intellectuals, remains unknown. These programs ranged from grants for independent artists, the Darb al-Ahmar School for Music and Circus Arts, an ambitious project for developing cultural management in the Arab region, various regional art and cultural festivals and workshops and volunteer-based cultural caravans sent to underprivileged areas in Egypt and to refugee camps outside it.
Under the newly issued, loosely tailored laws against civil society, the staff of Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy and the beneficiaries of its activities could be prosecuted on charges of receiving foreign funds — an indictment that could possibly lead to death sentences. The organization’s planned relocation to either Beirut or Tunis thus sounds largely understandable.
While there is arguably no reason for Al-Mawred to continue working in Egypt under these threats, such events strike at the very core of the cultural scene. On the one hand, they have resulted in a complete takeover of the public sphere by the authorities, a space that had been forcefully reclaimed by the revolution. On the other hand, the recent laws intend to decrease the margin of cultural production, even inside elite circles, and to dry up the already scarce funding resources that have thrived in the past decade due to the Mubarak regime’s relatively liberal policy toward foreign funding. Moreover, the new environment will minimize chances to further develop connections with cultural circles outside Egypt in general, and more specifically with the “Arab Spring” countries. Such connections with the region, which have deepened during the past decade, are attributable to series of regular activities organized between its artists and intellectuals.
As it takes up the reins of the public domain — of political activism, the media, universities, economic activity and even religious institutions and civil society — the Egyptian state seizes artistic and cultural territory, robbing them of all potential. In doing so, the state is stripping society of one of its strongest weapons against extremism, which it claims to be fighting. This siege slowly turns Cairo into a giant black hole that swallows the city’s last flickering lights.
During my last call with my friend, who has been worn out by three years of personal and collective adversities and of unyielding efforts for El Fann Midan, the Independent Culture Coalition and Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy, in addition to countless sit-ins organized for the release of detained friends and bidding farewell to others, he told me in an unusual pragmatic tone that “unconditional surrender” is the only available choice, albeit an unsafe one. He might move with Al-Mawred to Beirut or Tunis, or he might go back to his original profession as a translator.
But his wish to take a break is certainly the only option left. From a city whose fate is worthy of the wise contemplation befitting weary warrior, I received a short text from my tenacious friend, reading: “The future remains in God’s hands.”
This article was originally published in Arabic on Al-Modon on November 12, 2014.