Elliott Colla

Mubarak told Christiane Amanpour that Egyptian “culture” was anarchic in nature—and that chaos would break out if he stepped down. So, Egyptians are barbaric and can be tamed only by the strong hand of a loving father—what else is new? This is not just what Lord Cromer used to say, it is exactly what the autumnal patriarch has been saying for twenty years now, channeling the stark (and false) choice once proposed by Matthew Arnold, "culture or anarchy." The slogan analog appeared on signs carried by Mubarak’s goon squads this week: “Thirty years of stability, Nine days of chaos.” While “culture” has little to do with the underlying demands of the people who have risen up against Mubarak’s bloody rule, “culture talk" will continue to play prominently in the rhetoric of counter-revolution—from al-Misriyya to Fox News to NPR.

The central tenets of the “culture and anarchy” canard may be old, but they have taken on new urgency this week and now there is nothing subtle about the message: popular desire for the regime’s removal is ripping apart the Egyptian social fabric and hurting the Egyptian economy; the revolt isn’t authentically Egyptian, but the result of foreign agitation by the likes of Aljazeera and Hamas; the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the rebellion and they are the ones who will stand to gain the most from it; Muslim Brothers are radical Islamists; radical Islam is a threat to Western civilization. And so on. It does not matter whether the pieces of the argument are true. It does not matter whether they contradict each other. What matters is that they all point in a single direction: change = chaos and ruin, the end of civilization.

Even as Mubarak falls, these claims will continue to be critical to the emergent political consensus, now asserted by local elites and repeated in distant echo chambers: if change is to come, it must come about in an orderly fashion; if reforms are in store, they must be managed from above by trusted elites; the Egyptian state must remain intact in its present form, and in control of transition throughout the process; the military and intelligence alliances with the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia must remain essentially untouched. There are signs that such a consensus has already been worked out between Washington and the army bases near Cairo. As we saw on Wednesday and Thursday, the fledgling post-Mubarak junta will use lethal violence to enforce the new/old agreements—and anyone crossing them may be subject to the kind of barbarism that only civilization can produce.

Conflict and Patronage

Observers might have puzzled over the prominent rank of culture in the Mubarak’s rushed cabinet. On Friday, Mubarak filled five of the top posts with three generals, a former ambassador and crony businessman. Then, while thirty other key ministry posts remained vacant, Mubarak appointed Gaber Asfour as the new Minister of Culture, and also created a new Ministry of Antiquities, headed by the media celebrity and one-time Egyptologist, Zahi Hawass.

The politicization of the Ministry of Culture is nothing new. During the early 1990s, the Mubarak regime began to face serious threats to its rule by an Islamist insurgency—and suddenly discovered the glories of culture while seeking new allies among artists and writers. It was an unlikely marriage given the repression, control and censorship by which the arts suffered under Mubarak and the two military dictators that preceded him. But there were carrots and sticks in the picture. These same intellectuals were high-profile targets of a vicious campaign launched by Islamists, who faulted them for their (supposedly) godless secularism. During this time, one prominent intellectual, Farag Foda, was murdered, while Naguib Mahfouz barely survived an assassination attempt. Other leading intellectuals like Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid and Sayyid al-Qimni also faced serious threats to their life, while many other writers, filmmakers, and artists suffered serious harassment, abuse and worse.

The response of the Mubarak regime to the crisis was deliberately ambiguous. On the one hand, it waged a nasty low-level war against urban slums and rural Upper Egypt. It also increased investment in the official state religious institutions—al-Azhar most especially—presenting itself as the true representative of “moderate” Islam, while attempting to co-opt and outflank the moral positions held by critics.

On the other hand, it opened new investments—though at a lower level—in the Ministry of Culture, headed until last week by the divisive and colorful artist, Farouk Hosni. Throughout the 1990s, the Ministry of Culture built and rebuilt institutions like the Cairo Book Fair, the Culture Palaces and the Cairo Opera. While once-important theaters fell into disrepair and eminent museums (like the Cairo Museum) and libraries (like Dar al-Kutub) moldered, the Ministry busied itself with flashy new projects that ranged from the sublime (the Alexandria Library) to the banal (Suzanne Mubarak’s “Reading for All” series of cheap paperback books). Besides these new activities, there were new opportunities for employment and reward. In the literary sector, for example, the ministry’s agencies developed new publishing venues and prize competitions. Many writers who might have been either unemployed, or employed elsewhere, were brought into a subsistence relation to government patrons. Thus, within a decade, the state went from being one of the chief obstacles to cultural production, to one of its chief protectors and subsidizers. Not all believed this sleight of hand—but few, most notably Sonallah Ibrahim, dared protest publicly.

Given the eclectic and shallow character of many of its frenetic endeavors, it is unlikely the various agencies of the Ministry were working from a single strategic plan. However, they did share a closely choreographed rhetoric about the meaning of their activities. As the Minister of Culture would assert, the Egyptian nation was engaged in a battle for its life. On one side stood the forces of religious ignorance. And on the other, the forces of secular enlightenment. In the context of the actual bloody struggle between Islamists and the state, it was not hard to read the allegory for what it was. With so many on the payroll of state culture, there were now many people who were paid to actually believe in it.

The Taming of an Intellectual

The rise and disgrace of the new Minister of Culture will be remembered as one of the central tales in this history of state patronage and cooptation—not merely because Asfour was a patron whose job was to bring intellectuals into the fold of the state, but also because he was once an independent intellectual who was himself co-opted. During the late 1970s, Asfour emerged as one of the leading literary critics of Egypt—a subtle, creative and voracious reader. As a young man, he was already a respected member of the illustrious Arabic Department at Cairo University. He took outspoken positions with regard to the creeping Saudization of Egyptian culture under Sadat and also against the constraints that military rule placed upon creative expression. Outside Egypt’s borders, he collaborated with the likes of Abderrahman Munif, Elias Khoury and Feisal Darraj on Qadaya wa-shahadat—one of the most remarkable journals ever produced by the Arab left. It was this formidable presence with whom I had the privilege of studying in 1991—and I owe much of what I understand about literature to him. But that was twenty years ago.

Months later, Asfour accepted the post of General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Culture and began his second career. For the first years, the Supreme Council was housed in a dilapidated colonial villa on a shady Zamalek street. Under Asfour’s leadership, the agency’s activities continued to grow: yearly conferences with an familiar list of international figures; new publication series dedicated to promoting young authors and original translations; new literary prizes and honors and more. Within a few years, the Council had moved to a shiny tower on the edges of the Cairo Opera grounds—the sacred grounds of high aesthetic culture in Cairo. Throughout his tenure as General Secretary, Asfour maintained a grueling publishing schedule, producing a gush of articles, essays and books matched by few serious critics, let alone journalists. But whatever the topic, the message remained basically the same: secular enlightenment must prevail in the struggle against popular ignorance and religious extremism.

It might have been plausible had Asfour occasionally interrogated of the lawlessness of the state that employed him, but he did not. Under Asfour’s leadership at the Supreme Council, the name of Edward Said was always on everyone’s lips—but that did not imply there was any virtue in speaking truth to power. Quite the opposite. As the Egyptian state murdered hundreds of Islamist activists through extra-judicial killings, the Supreme Council published agit-prop tracts praising secular rationality. As the Egyptian state imprisoned and tortured thousands of political prisoners, the Supreme Council held conferences on poetry. As Mubarak’s clique privatized and stole the nation’s wealth, the Supreme Council held invitation-only colloquia about translation. Sadly, by conscripting “culture” and “secularism” and “enlightenment” for use by a violent and corrupt regime, Asfour insured that these terms would be indelibly linked to one another in people’s minds.
When Gaber Asfour accepted the Muammar Qaddafi Prize for Literature in January 2010, it raised a storm of outrage across the Arab world—but little surprise. On Friday, when he accepted the post of Minister of Culture it was only the latest, perhaps last, stage on his journey into the dark heart of the authoritarian state. Again, the literary world of Egypt was livid about Asfour’s betrayal, but few were deeply surprised.

Two Cultures

The last week showed us two very different notions of expressive culture on display in Egypt. On the one side we saw the public uprising, with its thousands of songs composed in the moment, by Egyptians giving clear and moving expression to their aspirations, encouraging each other as they stood against a superior force armed with lethal weapons, and reveling in the joy of liberating themselves from lies of their oppressors. On the other, we witnessed Gaber Asfour act out a stiff and furtive ceremony of state pomp, compromise and corruption. On the one side, we watched as hundreds of Egyptian revolutionaries put their lives on the line to protect the Cairo Museum and the Alexandria Library from the gangs of thugs unleashed by the fading Mubarak regime. And on the other, we heard Zahi Hawass tell more tall tales of how he saved Egypt’s antiquities once again. And through it all, those who spoke loudest about "culture" were inevitably on the side of chaos and violence.

There were two cultures on display in Egypt this past week. One was a culture of life, solidarity, and affirmation. The other was the mummified face of a state culture that, though long dead, still remains with us as a relic.


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