Against “the threat of Islamisation”, culture is said to be Egypt’s last line of defence. But what on earth do we mean when we talk about Egyptian culture?
The night before the ridiculously so called 24 August revolution—the first, abortive attempt to “overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood”—Intellectuals gathered in Talaat Harb Square to express discontent with the new political status quo. Much of what they had to say centred on the draft constitution making no provisions for freedom of expression, but the resulting discourse was, as ever, an amorphous combo of statements: “We cannot stand idly by while our national symbols of thought and creativity are subject to attack,” for example. Here as elsewhere in the so called civil sphere, resistance to political Islam has readily reduced to generalised statements of individual positions rallying to the abstract title of Intellectual, which in Arabic is more literally translated as “cultured person”. Cultured people—actors, for example, are eager to protect culture—the films and television serials in which they appear; and in so being they have the support of artists, writers, “minorities” and “thinkers”.
Never mind the fact that most Egyptian actors have never read a book in their lives, whether or not they admit to such “lack of culture”; it is their social standing as visible producers of something falling under that name that places them in a position to defend an equally, historically compromised value system: enlightenment, secularism, citizenship; imagination, inventiveness, choice…
To a pro-Islamist majority of the constituency—and it is irrelevant whether or to what extent that majority confuses political Islam with the Rightful Creed—the Talaat Harb rally would have been anathema. Comparatively tiny in numbers though they remain, Intellectuals promote practices and ideas that Islam in its present-day formulations will tend to reject. So, for example, where an actress who already subscribes to the pre-Islamist censorial strictures of a seemingly forever “conservative society” may talk about a slightly skimpy outfit being necessary for the role, the post-Islamist TV viewer vindicated by the rise to power of the Muslim Brotherhood or the Ikhwan—so much so that, clean-shaven all through the almost two year long transitional period and before, he now has the moustache-less beard prescribed by stricter schools of orthodoxy—will talk about nudity, depravity, iniquity and hellfire.
And it was exactly such discourse, taken to insolent extremes, that prompted a series of more specifically “artistic sphere” (as in actors’ and singers’) protests in the last few weeks. On a programme he presents, a supposedly respectable Salafi “Islamic scholar” named Abdalla Badr attacked the film star Ilham Shahine for her stand against the rise of political Islam on the religious satellite channel Al-Hafidh, on 20 August. He went so far as to say, addressing the actress, “How many men have mounted you?” prompting outrage in many (including Al-Azhar) circles. Events have centred variously on Shahine being subjected to such audiovisual libel (she has since taken Badr to court), on similar incidents with actresses Nabila Ebeid and Hala Fakhir, and on the legal battle being waged on comedy superstar Adel Imam for several months now. The last seminar, in solidarity with Shahine, took place at the Actors’ Syndicate on 4 September.
So far, so clear: civil society and its Intellectual vanguard, however conservative or uncultured in their own right—however ineffectively, too, all things considered—are facing up to “the Islamist threat”. The civil-Islamist (or, less euphemistically, the secular-Islamist) fight is no longer avoidable; and its media facet remains important even though it plays out more effectively in the long run in academic and literary circles. (Remember such incidents as the court case that forced the late scholar Nasr Hamid Abu-Zeid to leave the country, the attack on Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s life, and the several legal “crises” over Ministry of Culture publications, all of which were eventually taken out of circulation. Remember that such incidents—together with the unprecedented spread of hijab and other overtly sectarian phenomena—all happened under Mubarak, at a time when Islamists were not only not in power but also subject to persecution.) Now that the political underdog of yesteryear has far more leverage to attack this year’s underdog-in-the-making, the battle lines would seem to be clearly marked; someone like Shahine looks like a victim of misguided religious extremism.
Yet to a wider pro-25 January (2011) majority—one that definitely includes some of those protesting against “the Ikhwanisation of the state” on the evening of 23 August—by now much “civil” politicising is, rightly or wrongly but perhaps more rightly than wrongly, identified with the pre-25 January political status quo. Whether because liberal and leftist forces are incompetent or because the religiosity of the constituency prevents them from building support bases, as was so painfully evident on 24 August, the only political players willing to oppose political Islam are those “remnants of the fallen regime” who had directly or indirectly benefited from the Mubarak system. (That Islamists too are “remnants”, perhaps the worst kind, is not a widely accepted idea however true.)
With a few notable exceptions, the “artistic sphere” in particular was largely against the revolution whose “legitimacy” the Ikhwan have practically inherited, aided by those “revolutionary” forces who had no support among “the people”. Adel Imam was seen insulting the Tahrir protesters on TV before Mubarak stepped down. Ilham Shahine repeatedly called for the brutal suppression of protests even as protesters were being murdered under SCAF; she openly lamented the age of freedom that the revolution put an end to. But more generally, the Intellectual fails to see the connection between the religiosity and conservatism of society at large and political Islam’s hold on that society. Such deference to the sect embraces not only the Intellectual vanguard (the phenomenon of the female film star who retires after taking hijab, or the Nasserist activist who supports “the resistance”) but also the revolution itself.
It is this issue—the Intellectual failing to represent a society susceptible to “extremism” and consequently being implicated with corrupt and autocratic (but, until Mursi was elected president, still nominally “civil”) power—that summarises the conundrum of the role of culture in Egypt. The futility of culture as a line of defence against anything at all was further illustrated on 6 August, when “a delegation” of mainstream arts figures including Imam met with Mursi at the presidential palace to discuss recent tensions with Islamists. Typically of any Egyptian official before or after the revolution, Mursi provided the requisite “reassurances”, speaking against the “satellite sheikhs” who insult artists and affirming the role of culture in “the civilisation of nations”. There is no reason on earth to believe that a president whose rise to power has entirely depended on Islamists will actually do anything to support “art” against “extremism”; and it is easy to conclude that what the delegation was doing was to actually offer a pledge of allegiance to the new powers, the better to be under their protection in the same way “artists” were under Mubarak’s.
What the delegation said to Mursi, even as it included complaints about the attacks to which female actresses in particular have been subject, would seem to support this thesis. Imam, for example, pointed up the role of “art” in dealing with “social issues”, not only denying past statements of his own but also no doubt alluding to the totally meaningless dose of moralistic preaching often included in otherwise profoundly immoral mainstream films, plays and TV serials. The actor best known for presenting the most searing attacks on Islamists under Mubarak thus implicitly offers to use what popularity he has left to polish the image of Egypt’s Islamist rulers. So much for the Intellectual…
Culture that negotiates a marginal space with power—like culture that speaks for “the people” as an undifferentiated mass, without genuine representative authority—will not promote enlightenment or choice. It will promote an increasingly repressive status quo. Defending so called freedom of creativity, for example, makes little sense in the acknowledged absence of freedom of belief. The kind of art that builds civilisation, whose audience is admittedly very small in Egypt, requires not a presidential decree but a vision of reality where slogans like “Islam is the answer” can only take up the peripheral role they deserve. But perhaps culture is less about commercial films and patriotism—less about experimental theatre, prose poetry and contemporary art—than about a perspective on reality that gradually, slowly and (in the Egyptian context) inevitably through non-official channels, reaches enough private lives to shape the public.
Perhaps the mistake we make about culture is ignoring its original meaning of a way of life and a system of values, values that—all things considered, at this historical juncture—political Islam must be seen to undermine.