Samia Mehrez: Egypt's Culture Wars

Egypt’s Culture Wars

by Samia Mehrez

The Mubarak era has witnessed the Egyptian state’s renewed active involvement in the cultural field if compared to late President Sadat’s marginaliztion of the field and its actors. Control of the cultural field has been the state’s consistent strategy in countering the rising influence of the Islamist movement and groups (a legacy of the Sadat policies) as well as the more amorphous and deeply rooted “Islamic Trend,” to use Gregory Starrett’s formulation to describe how civil society and public space have been penetrated by the discourses of religion through the school, the media, and the market. Moreover, in order to compensate for the loss of control over the political and economic fields that are increasingly dominated by international global forces as well as step up its domination of both the religious and cultural fields, the Egyptian state has adopted contradictory strategies in its simultaneous attempts to recapture a modern secular image while aiming to establish itself, through its increasing investment in Islamic symbols, as the sole moral and religious authority. Finally, in its obsession with the game of power and its own self-preservation the state has exasperated civil society and civil institutions and has had to deal with dramatic manifestations of what seems to be a new culture of dissent.

Despite the visible centrality of state control over the cultural field at the local level, the latter has not been insular to the general flux of global capital and privatization policies, nor to the struggles over “democratization,” and civil society movements that have all marked Egypt under Mubarak. These new realities have impacted the economic context as well as the symbolic values of the cultural field itself whose dependence on state-employment and the state’s cultural apparatus is being reshaped by a growing private sector in the world of publishing and translation, film and media production, as well as private galleries and global art markets. Such developments have provided new conditions for cultural production and for cultural players to carve out new sites of resistance to state domination.

By exploring the strategies of contestation and resistance that cultural players have used in their cultural wars in Egypt, case studies also unsettle the dominant representation of the binary relationship in which an authoritarian state is pitted against a dominated cultural field. The growing and globally oriented private sector in mass media, cinema and the art world has provided new venues (satellite television, private art galleries, international exhibitions, biennales, international festivals, new funding opportunities and conditions of production) that have allowed cultural producers to re-negotiate their relationship with the political field.

At another level, the rules of the game of censorship no longer lie solely with the political field but that the autonomy of the cultural field is under threat of contamination by extrinsic religious, aesthetic and social values and mores that have come to dominate Egyptian society at large during the past quarter of a century. Indeed, the state seems to have ceded public space to religious authorities (both Islamic and Coptic) and non-state actors allowing them to censor cultural and artistic works. However, a closer look shows that the state maintains its dominance by recognizing the religious capital of religious authorities and communities (both Islamic and Coptic) while at the same time manipulating them and confining their position to one of subordination. It must also be recognized that these strategies on the part of the state have increasingly strengthened the interventions of the religious field in the cultural one and have threatened the political field’s “winning” position in the game.

From: Samia Mehrez: Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice, Routledge, 2008.