As the curtain rose for the evening performance at Cairo Opera House, the cast did not assemble for the opening prelude of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida as they had on previous nights. Instead, more than 300 actors, dancers and theatre staff filled the stage, wearing full costume and clutching protest signs. Addressing the audience, conductor Nayer Nagi announced: “In a stand against a detailed plan to destroy culture and fine arts in Egypt we abstain from performing tonight’s opera.”
Following a spate of sackings within Egypt’s culture ministry, a new political battleground has emerged in the country’s opera houses and theatres. The performers add their voices to a growing chorus of accusations from other institutions who believe the country’s ruling Islamist Freedom and Justice party is attempting to cement control over the direction of their work.
Since his appointment four weeks ago, the culture minister, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, has dismissed three leading members of Egypt’s cultural scene: the head of the Cairo Opera House, Enas Abdel-Dayem; the head of the Egyptian General Book Authority, Ahmed Mujahid and Salah El-Meligy, the head of the Fine Arts Sector.
Last week Egyptian novelist Bahaa Taher said he would resign from the state-run supreme council of culture in protest.
“Over the past days, the minister has dismissed many valuable, highly educated and accomplished artists and intellectuals from leading positions in Egypt’s culture scene,” Taher, winner of the 2008 International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2008, told a local media outlet.
“My resignation is to protest [against] those decisions, which testify to the minister’s clear strategy of destroying the arts and culture of the country.”
After decades of dictatorship, Egypt’s artists had hoped the country’s new rulers would use their influence to roll back at least some of the restrictions they had faced. The ruling Muslim Brotherhood had been particularly hard hit by limits on freedom of expression under the rule of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
However, the artists say the sackings reflect a trend towards reimposing such restrictions, and the government’s growing willingness to court religious conservatives by cracking down on methods of expression deemed “offensive” or “immoral”.
Performers also fear budget cuts will limit the vibrancy of the country’s art scene.
The shura council’s committee on culture, media and tourism has advised that money allocated to foreign arts companies be reduced. Abdel-Aziz has also argued that the removal of key figures within cultural institutions is based on the need to root out corruption.
But performers say the cuts are based on a more pragmatic calculation. “This is not about fighting corruption,” said Dalia Farid Fadel, a political science graduate and opera singer. “This is about conveniently killing two birds with one stone. Egypt is on the brink of bankruptcy and in this situation, cutting down on the arts can be presented as a natural choice. But we cannot afford to lose the arts, they are such a strong part of our identity as Egyptians.”
She said the sackings and budget cuts reflected the increasingly polarised nature of Egyptian politics, in which Islamist-dominated state institutions were trying to impose their religious morals upon artistic institutions which challenge the status quo.
For example, she said, in the shura council last week Gamal Hamed, a member of the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour party, called for ballet to be banned, branding it “the art of nudity”.
The culture minister has rejected accusations that he is trying to “Islamise” the arts, telling the Muslim Brotherhood’s Arabic-language website: “This talk of ‘Islamising culture’ is a strange expression, as if it is a slur or a charge. The majority of Egyptians practise Islam.”
But the artists believe this misses the point. “The authorities are trying to change the essence of Egypt by slowly wearing away at the diversity of our culture,” said Fadel.
“I have a political science degree but I decided to become an artist because that is how I can fight for our national identity. The opera and the arts are a hub of free expression. It makes people think and it proves that our essence cannot be reduced to a specific religious identity.”