International News | Egyptian Artists Occupy Culture Ministry by Randy Gener

Egyptian artists are protesting controversial new culture minister Alaa Abdel Azi, who is accused of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The country’s leading artists, writers and intellectuals have occupied the culture ministry’s headquarters in Cairo since June 5th.

The protesters are asking for the support of the international community to help them with their cause: a call for freedom in art. The Egyptian Center of the International Theatre Institute has issued an open letter to the global community seeking for international support.

Protesters have staged a sit-in at the Ministry of Culture headquarters in Zamalek district of Cairo. Prominent artists and intellectuals broke into the ministry premises and say that they will not budge until the minister is replaced.

They are protesting against what they call “the Islamization of Egyptian culture.” To be more politically precise, they are against the political reforms being instituted by the new culture minister.  Outraged artists accuse the minister of executing a Muslim Brotherhood agenda to Islamize Egyptian culture and reforming Egypt’s national identity.

The controversy began on May 28 when the culture minister fired the heads of Cairo Opera House and Fine Arts Sector, which led to protests outside the Opera House and an on-stage protest at a performance of Aida, resulting in a three-day halt of performances.

Alaa Abdel Aziz has denied that he has been ousted by the artists or that he has resigned. According to several reports from Egypt, he replied by saying that ‘”everyone has the right to express their own opinion.” In the English edition of Ahram, the minister says that he does not regret his decisions to kick out senior ministry officials and replace them with artists and employees who have a lower public profile. Intellectuals say those newly appointed people do not have the skills to lead Egypt’s cultural institutions.

Abdel-Aziz has also denied being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood saying that “statements to the contrary are but rumors, yet adding that it there is nothing unacceptable about a culture minister being a member of the Islamist group.”

“I won’t speak to the people who broke into my office, but I let them stay there,” Abdel-Aziz told Ahram. “I can only have dialogue with the real intellectuals and artists, but in presence of the press and TV cameras.” The minister said that he would pick the journalists who would attend this meeting.

Protesters said they refuse to meet Minister Abdel-Aziz to negotiate and announced they will continue their sit-in until he is removed. The Freedom of Creativity Front also vowed in a statement to refuse to negotiate with the minister and clarified that it was not personal, but rather a rejection of government policies.

Among the protesters who have joined the sit-in were Egypt’s best known actress Laila Elwi; novelist Sanaallah Ibrahim, who refused a prestigious Egyptian State award in 2003 because of his opposition to the Hosni Mubarak regime, the director Khaled Youssef, film producer Mohamed al-Adl; visual artist Mohamed Abla; actors Nabil al-Halfawy, Mahmoud Qabil and Sameh al-Seriety; the poet Sayed Hegab and novelist Bahaa Taher.

This past weekend the Egyptian branch of the International Theatre Institute (ITI) has distributed a letter to its international colleagues around the world, which formally asks the help of the international community to oust the controversial minister from his office. The letter, authored by Nehad Selaiha and Hazem Azmy, Egypt’s leading critics, have also questioned the professional qualifications of the Abdel-Aziz, who is described as “an obscure film lecturer with a paltry academic record and practically no professional or public service credentials.” ITI is a UNESCO entity with more than 90 centers around the world, the letter can be read in its entirety here.