Brotherhoodization of the Opera: Egypt's Assault on the Arts

The country's ultra-conservative groups are cracking down on what they call "nude art."

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Artists and staff of the Cairo Opera House declare a strike prior to a performance of Aida in May of 2013. (YouTube)

As the curtains swept open on the stage of Cairo's historic Opera House in late May, spectators held their breath waiting to be regaled by Giuseppe Verdi's classic Aida, which opens with the Egyptians bracing for invasion by Ethiopians seeking to rescue their princess, Aida, from a lifetime of servitude. What they got, however, may have left Verdi himself on the edge of his seat.

Instead, the cast and crew stood shoulder to shoulder, some in costume, many with placards in hand, denouncing what they called the "Brotherhoodization of the Opera" and declaring the country's Muslim Brotherhood-led government "illegitimate." As the crowd shot to its feet cheering "Bravo!" and chanting "Long Live Egypt," conductor Nayer Nagui announced:

"In a stand against a detailed plan to destroy culture and fine arts in Egypt, we decided as artists and management to abstain from performing tonight's Opera Aida."

It was, for artists and art-lovers alike, a declaration of war.

The move followed the dismissal of the highly respected head of the Cairo Opera, Enes Abdel Dayem, which prompted hundreds to take to the streets in protests that continue even today. Her dismissal came only weeks after President Mohamed Morsi appointed Alaa Abdel-Aziz, a professor of film editing, as the new minister of culture. Abdel Aziz said the decision was in an effort to inject "new blood" into Egypt's art world, which he said is growing increasingly corrupt. That same week, the country's upper house of parliament recommended budget cuts for the Opera, which has been reeling from a drawback of funds in recent years. On Wednesday, prominent artists and intellectuals stormed the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, vowing to stay there until the minister steps down.

"My dismissal has sparked a new revolution -- a cultural revolution," Abdel Dayem, a flute player with a PhD at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris, said in an interview. During the past year of fighting, "I refused to close the opera during all of this because the complex is a symbol of our strength and our history as a nation. This is why the people rose up against their decision. They see the effort we are doing to preserve cultural scene in Egypt."

Further heightening fears among many that the government is trying to impose Islamist restrictions on the arts, a lawmaker with the ultra-conservative Nour Party noted last month that ballet performances should be canceled altogether because they encourage "immorality" and "nude art."

The minister has not commented on the protests and calls to the Ministry of Culture were not immediately returned.

"Budget constraint excuses to get rid of heads of cultural sectors won't solve any budget deficit -- the budget of the Ministry of Culture is too small for any significant improvement in the overall government budget," said Said Sadek, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. "Why we do not hear such talk about cutting the Egyptian Interior Ministry's imports of tear gas, political surveillance, torture machines and raises in the salaries of police and army officer?"

The showdown at the Opera is part of an ongoing saga unfolding in Egypt as opposition to the policies of Morsi's Islamist-dominated government grows increasingly pronounced. Late last year, a committee made up almost entirely of Morsi-loyalists hastily drafted a new constitution -- the first since Egyptians toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 -- and passed it amid a massive outcry from citizens who say that the oppressive policies of the Mubarak regime are alive and well.

Similar concerns have been raised over threats to sectors ranging from education to media. Some Egyptian scholars cite potential pitfalls buried in the new constitution that call upon the state to "safeguard the cultural and linguistic constituents of society and foster the Arabization of education, science, and knowledge." While those promoting more conservative ideologies stress the importance of the Arabic language for cultural preservation, many argue that eliminating English education from concentrations like medicine and engineering threatens to cast Egyptian students behind their global counterparts.

However, any perceived attack on the art scene in Egypt strikes at a certain sentimentality shared not only by its citizens, but by people across the Arab world. Long before Egyptians ever knew of a man named Hosni Mubarak -- the country once known for the pyramids and the Nile had reinvented itself at the turn of the century as a center for modern art, cultural and fashion. It produced pan-Arab musical icons like Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez, and composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Authors Naguib Mahfouz and Taha Hussein had their books translated into several languages -- the former was a Nobel laureate. Bibliotheca Alexandria, erected in 2002, has become a global center for learning and education, embracing the historical past of the Mediterranean port city.

Egypt is a birthplace of Arab cinema. Internationally renowned actor Omar Sharif, famous for his roles in Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, may have Lebanese blood, but he was born and bred on Egypt's Mediterranean coast. More recent Egyptian film stars include Amr Waked, internationally recognized for his role in movies like Syriana and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

"Egypt is the foundation of entertainment and culture in the Eastern world," said Meena Dimian, an Egyptian-American actor, producer, and writer. "Almost everything I've learned about creativity was taken from the charisma and character of Egyptian artists. You can only hope it carries over to coming generations of performers."

But the warning signs are there -- some more subtle than others. Already more traditional art forms like belly dancing, once a staple in all the great Egyptian classic films and upscale parties, is increasingly falling victim to more conservative standards, which view it as indecent.

Last year, one of the most beloved comedians, Adel Imam, was sentenced to three months in jail for offending Islam in some of his most popular films, including two entitled The Terrorist and Terrorism and Kabab. The case sparked fury among artists who note that freedom of speech is compromised by the growing list of untouchables, including Islam and the president.

Censorship was always a problem for Egypt, and the country has experienced numerous waves of political instability and wars with Israel over the past 60 years. However, new bureaucratic hurdles and financial constraints are impeding artists in all genres. The economy is waning, and new centers for art, culture, and film are emerging in the region, like Beirut and Dubai, prompting many of Egypt's talented artists to leave.

"In the 1950s up until the 1980s, there were often as many as 100 films produced out of Egypt each year," said Amr Salama, an Egyptian filmmaker currently working on his third feature film. "Since the revolution, we are lucky to see 10 films produced in a year. Things are extremely bad now and only getting worse. Even if you produce a film, there are difficulties to release it."

Others artists have abandoned aesthetics all together, focusing their efforts on helping embattled opposition groups organize, particularly ahead of renewed calls for nationwide protests to overthrow President Morsi on June 30. Artists have always played a significant role in inspiring civil disobedience, whether in the form of politically charged graffiti, songs and film. This is not a new phenomenon with the recent revolution. As Egyptians were rising up against colonialists in the early 1950's, Oum Kalthoum, then the biggest name in Arab music, would hold controversial underground performances for student activist groups and for the Free Officers Movement, the group credited with unseating Egypt's monarchy.

So significant was her influence across the region that her 1975 funeral drew an estimated 4 million mourners -- many of them sobbing hysterically as though mourning their own mothers. It was one of the largest gatherings in Arab history, even bigger than the funeral of the country's late President Gamal Abdel Nasser, a champion of Arab nationalism who enjoyed widespread support.

But even under Nasser, artists were seen as a threat: He banned books that were deemed contradictory to his socialist practices or a challenge to his authority. Today, many artists are associated with liberal and socialist movements and are perceived as enemies of the current Islamist administration. The dismissal of the Opera boss is viewed by many as a systematic attack on that broader community.

"What is the state of art in Islamist countries like Sudan, Afghanistan, Hamas's Gaza or Somalia?" said Sadek, who joined protesters outside the Opera. "The Muslim Brotherhood wants to remold society by controlling education, media and culture. Art is free."