by Elie Chalala. Now that Mohammed Morsi has exited the stage, what will the students of Arab politics remember about his Islamic regime? The Brotherhood has violated a long tradition in Egypt of incorporating the intellectuals into the state; previous states either co-opted the intellectual class or opened doors for their political participation. As an avid clipper and collector of large numbers of old articles about the Arab Spring, I accidentally ran into an essay by Robyn Creswell, “Egypt: The Cultural Revolution” ( published in the New York Times Book Review on February 10, 2011) in which he addresses the relationship between the intellectual and the state.
“The festive protests that broke out on Jan. 25 in Cairo’s Tahrir Square have become a window into what Egypt might look and sound like without the regime of Hosni Mubarak,” wrote Creswell in 2011. It is not far fetched to repeat the same words with the caveat that Egypt “without the regime of Morsi” would mirror more what we watch in Tahrir Square now. And no wonder, since most intellectuals under the Morsi government were yearning to the days of Mubarak, which many preferred. What transpired in Tahrir Square in 2011 was a brief moment, which soon vanished under the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Creswell shrewdly observes how the Egyptian state, under Mohammad Ali, Nasser, and Mubarak, co-opted the intellectuals or incorporated them into the state apparatus where many of them worked as mid-level civil servants, including Naguib Mahfouz. A striking example of this arose during one of Mubarak’s most difficult moments when the noted intellectual Gaber Asfour accepted the post of Minister of Culture to the dismay of his fellow intellectuals (he later turned down the appointment).
In contrast, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have alienated themselves from the Egyptian intellectuals, artists, and men and women of letters. In 2011, Creswell described Egypt’s folk culture as “profane, bawdy, [and] politically sophisticated. It stands as a direct challenge to the version of culture propagated by the Mubarak regime and its predecessors.” If that was the conclusion reached from Tahrir Square in 2011, the scene today in Tahrir Square has posed a fatal blow the Muslim Brotherhood regime.
A common grievance against the Muslim Brotherhood is what many Egyptians call the “Ikhwanization” or“Brotherhoodization,” which essentially means the Islamization of Egyptian culture. This process consists of replacing secular officials by Islamists in key positions of major departments and agencies to exercise control over cultural and artistic activities and freedom of expressions. Among these departments and agencies are the Ministry of Culture, the General Egyptian Book Organization, the Cairo Opera House and the National Library and Archives. So it is no wonder the cultural and artistic communities have been actively protesting along with other segments of the Egyptian people in the Tahrir square since June 30.
Islamists targeted ballet dance, sculpture and statues, among other arts. Ballet dance is an art of “nudity” in the words of an Islamist MP. Statues or depiction of the human body are also prohibited in Islam. Alarmed by these attitudes, Egyptian intellectuals feared that great arts such as ballet and sculpture would be banned under Islamic government and harm Egypt’s cultural identity. The Islamists claimed that Egypt’s identity “had been hijacked by the West and that the time had come for the country to regain its Islamic identity,'” according to professor Khaled Fahmy as cited by countercurrents.org.
Creswell, who is the poetry editor of The Paris Review, wrote an insightful and rich essay about Egyptian popular culture in 2011, a piece still worth reading two years later. With the Muslim Brotherhood ousted, we will look forward to see whether the intellectuals will regain their historical role under the new regime.
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Featured image, Prayer in Cairo by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1865).