By David Batty, The Observer
Censorship could be as bad as under previous regimes, as cultural figures feel the pressure
Leading Middle Eastern cultural figures and academics have warned that the arts of the Arab spring are under threat because of increasing violence, censorship and lack of political vision.
The popular perception that the region is experiencing unprecedented freedom of expression is “simplistic and misleading”, with many artists “wary of the increasingly violent nature of the Arab spring”, according to a study for the British Council by the postwar reconstruction and development unit at York University. The report, Out in the Open: Artistic Practices and Social Change in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, found that the system of strict government censorship that has existed for decades is “largely still in place”.
While artists have become emboldened by the 2011 uprisings, many were struggling to deal with the new political landscape amid worrying signs of a wave of political and religious censorship, said lead researcher Professor Sultan Barakat.
In Egypt, which held the second round of its constitutional referendum yesterday, and Tunisia, the predominant fear was the rise of political Islam, ranging from new moderate Islamist governments, whose policies are unclear, to ultra-conservative Salafis, who have attacked cinemas and artists.
“I think we are at a brink point. The Muslim majority [in Egypt] could just react and suppress artistic expression even more than Hosni Mubarak,” Barakat said. The Egyptian playwright Ahmed el-Attar said: “I’m afraid the country is sliding towards fascism. So far culture has been kept on the side. The Muslim Brotherhood don’t yet have a cultural agenda. They’re talking about focusing on historical Islamic figures. I’m not sure that applies to the Salafis, who question the notion of art itself.”
Karim el-Shennawy, a film-maker who protested in Tahrir Square, said: “A lot of things have been stopped and censored. This can get worse. There’s a lot of voices attacking directors and actors, accusing them of filling the mind of the new generation with inappropriate issues and images. One actress was accused of doing prostitution on screen.”
The report said some established cultural figures have become marginalised because they were regarded as too close to the fallen dictatorships, such as the Egyptian comedy actor who was criticised for being slow to criticise Mubarak and after the fall of the regime faced a charge of insulting Islam in his films.
More positively, new art had emerged from the street, such as the proliferation of graffiti in Egypt and Libya, and digital art driven by social networking.
But the younger generation involved in the revolutions lacked the expertise to develop a strong cultural sector, said Barakat. “The [established] art societies are still in their ivory towers. Their audiences remain small, exhibitions are still exclusive. If you talk to the majority in the slums, in rural areas they will look at [that art] and feel a degree of alienation.
“Younger artists have joined the revolution, but because they don’t have a clear vision they could be misleading the majority of the population to adventures that no one understands the consequences of.” He pointed to the example of Egyptian blogger Alia Majida al-Mahadi, whose posting of nude self-portraits online in an expression of female empowerment was used by Islamists to support their demands for a stricter religious society. “The backlash was not worth it, it made the Islamists more suspicious. A lot of trouble could have been avoided with a more tactful engagement,” he said.
Writer Ahdaf Soueif, who documented the uprising in her book Cairo: My City, Our Revolution, said she opposed engaging with Mohamed Morsi’s government about the future of the arts amid the protests about the president’s attempted power grab. “Engaging with them on that level is wrong. They are in no way a government of the revolution.”
However, Graham Sheffield, arts director at the British Council, which has just held a conference to look at how to support the arts sector in the Middle East, said that the way forward could require sitting down with people with very different values.
“We must not only engage with people we think we’re going to agree with, ie the cultural elite, but also with the more reasonable elements of the conservative regimes as they seem to be those who are going to be running these countries,” Sheffield said.
Soueif cautioned against any foreign intervention. She said overseas organisations should only respond to specific requests for help to avoid the situation getting caught up in issues such as colonialism. “If institutions like the British Council want to remain relevant, the best way to do this is provide a platform to connect young people and artists from the Middle East with their international peers, most obviously with the Occupy movement,” she said.
[Image via Agence France-Presse]