One of Port Said’s main independent cultural centers was raided and closed on Tuesday by members of the Sharq municipality, Sharq Police Station and the public facilities police department. According to the municipality’s official Facebook page, the center is an “unlicensed apartment ran as a center [for private lessons] without permits.”
Boulevard was founded in 2014 as a coworking space and a cultural hub, where music, arts, culture, design, heritage and publishing activities take place.
Rouvaida al-Taweel, one of the center’s founders, told Mada Masr that the Boulevard’s activity is purely cultural, and it is not involved in giving private lessons to school students. Taweel added that the center is licensed and holds a tax card and a commercial registration number listing the nature of its activities.
A source in Sharq municipality told Mada Masr that the information available proves that the center is not a cultural center but functions as a private tutoring center. “If they have a tax card and a commercial registration number, these documents should be officially sent to the district’s head to reopen the center,” the source said. “Previously, a center alleging it operated in a cultural capacity was shut down because its owner used it to give students private tutoring.”
The center’s lawyer Hassan al-Sayyad, however, said that, according to its official papers, the center organizes “arts workshops in music, drawing, and photography, as well as organizing exhibitions, lectures, parties and language-learning courses.”
Sayyad explained that police visited the center in March to look at Boulevard’s papers. “The police wanted to make sure that we are not a private tutoring center, that our activities pertain to culture activities and that we don’t sell any commercial goods,” he said. “We were issued a paper from the municipality.”
The document presented to Sayyad, which he published on his Facebook page, states that the center does not fall under Law 456/1954, which regulates commercial and industrial activities judged to be disturbing to residents. Therefore, Boulevard is not being closed on these grounds.
Neither is the center being closed for unlicensed commercial activity, as Boulevard acquired a permit from Port Said’s Commercial Chamber when it was founded.
Sayyad explained that the center was shut down without being presented an official closure order. When he visited the district office to ask about the closure order, he found an order issued by the governor’s office dated November 16, one day after Boulevard was closed.
Taweel said that she did not know what the real reasons behind the sudden closure were, especially as the founders enjoyed good relations with the governor, with whom they worked on a project concerning the governorate’s heritage.
“I believe the decision is an attempt by the governor to show people that he is working hard,” Taweel said. “The municipality’s argument reflects a total ignorance of the nature of our activities. They cannot distinguish between a cultural center and a private tutoring center.”
She also criticized the behavior of the task force that enforced the closure. “They didn’t allow me to get my personal belongings, and they refused to open the center temporarily so we could get our possessions,” she said.
The municipality source explained to Mada Masr that the founders can submit a request to the district head to temporarily open the center. If the request is approved, municipality representatives will escort employees into the center to collect their items.
Artist and graphic designer Adham Bakry, who frequents the center, explained to Mada Masr that Boulevard is the first independent cultural center to be established by a group of young people in the canal city. He said the center revived Port Said’s cultural scene.
“Before the revolution, the French Center was the only cultural hub, in addition to Mobaderon, a group that only held a few workshops,” Bakry said. “Boulevard founders met after the revolution during a TEDx talk and decided to establish a culture center. The city’s musicians, designers, artists, and photographers later came to discuss, organize and innovate there.”
Bakry cannot see the closure as separate from the context of the prevailing political atmosphere. “I don’t know for sure if there are direct political reasons behind the closure,” he said, “but we can see generational and cultural gaps and the bureaucracy killing all youth initiatives. They restricted the youth movement by controlling protests, so young people established culture centers that are now being shut down. They fear culture.”
There have been closure attempts at other independent culture initiatives elsewhere in Egypt where the political dimension was clearer. In December 2015, authorities temporarily closed Townhouse gallery and Rawabet Theatre in downtown Cairo in the lead up to the fifth anniversary of the January 25 revolution. Days after, authorities raided the independent Merit Publishing House. One of the press’s employees was briefly detained in connection to a complaint that the publisher had printed books without registration numbers, as well as various other arts initiatives in downtown Cairo.