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Culture War Rages In Egypt


In Egypt today, the government announced that efforts by the U.S. and other countries to mediate the ongoing political crisis have ended in failure. And with that, the standoff in the streets goes on.


Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters continued demonstrations against the military ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi. Egypt's army has threatened to break up those protests by force.

GREENE: We're going to step back now, and look at what the turmoil means for a specific group: the country's artistic community. Even before the former president was overthrown last month, a culture war was raging in Egypt. As Merrit Kennedy reports, while Morsi's ouster was welcomed by many artists, they're now wondering what the new government could mean for freedom of expression.


MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: You walk up seven flights of stairs to reach the apartment where Sonallah Ibrahim has been writing novels for the last 35 years. The rooms are packed with the yellowed volumes. Ibrahim is 76, and over the decades, his darkly satirical works have taken aim at president after president. Now, he says, he feels relieved that Mohammed Morsi's Islamist government was pushed from office.

SONALLAH IBRAHIM: The majority of the writers and artists were feeling in danger that their work, their way of thinking, their freedom of expression - all of these are threatened.

KENNEDY: After Morsi came to power, Ibrahim says he searched through his own books, wondering which sentences might be used against him. Morsi's government didn't focus on arts and culture until its final months in office. Then, the Morsi-appointed minister of culture sacked seven top officials from the ministry. The government defended the move by saying that the ministry needed new blood. But many artists and writers saw this as evidence of a desire to change Egyptian culture and make it more religious. Ibrahim was one of the leaders of the weeks-long protest against the minister.

IBRAHIM: We said that we are starting a sit-in, and we are not going to leave until he is out. And we didn't leave until he was out.

KENNEDY: Now that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are no longer in power, it's impossible to know whether the fears of some intellectuals would have been realized - like shutting down the opera and the ballet, canceling more secular-minded TV programs and censoring literature. Samia Mehrez, an Arabic literature professor at the American University in Cairo, says that the Brotherhood's intentions may never be known.

SAMIA MEHREZ: What would that cultural production have looked like, had it dominated? It's beyond me because they hadn't had time to actually control it; and you can't.

KENNEDY: During its year in power, the Morsi government accused several high-profile media personalities of insulting Islam, or insulting the president. But it did not crack down on cartoonists like Andeel, who regularly lampooned the government on the pages of a major independent newspaper. Twenty-seven-year-old Andeel, who only uses one name, has a knack for pointing out the tragic and the absurd. He has been troubled by the recent crackdown on Morsi supporters by security forces, and that shows in his recent work.

ANDEEL: A couple of days ago, I was criticizing Morsi. Three or four days later, I'm again drawing the picture of bloody hands in a uniform.

KENNEDY: But now, the newspaper isn't publishing his cartoons that are critical of the army.

ANDEEL: And they would sometimes say, we don't quite get the idea; which is something that they always say when they want to refuse a cartoon, when they want to be polite.

KENNEDY: Those cartoons are still seen by his 15,000 Facebook followers. One recent drawing comments on the cycles of violence between security forces and supporters of the former president, who have been branded as terrorists by the new government. It shows a soldier pointing a gun at a bearded man holding a stick.

ANDEEL: And the military was saying, I'm killing him because he's a terrorist; and the guy saying, I'm a terrorist because he's killing me.

KENNEDY: Andeel says that cultural space here has always been highly regulated. He criticizes the secular intellectuals from being disconnected from much of Egyptian society, and the Muslim Brotherhood for having a narrow view about what Egyptian culture is. Both, he says, should be more inclusive.

ANDEEL: Culture is supposed to strive and evolve in society, where there are millions of voices, and millions of ideas and backgrounds, and stuff like that. And that helps culture to grow.

KENNEDY: There is a burgeoning scene of independent artists, musicians and writers far outside the purview of the ministry of culture. And that, says Samia Mehrez, is something no government can control.

MEHREZ: You can't crack down on, you know, the cultural life of revolution. I think if there has been a revolution, it's been a cultural revolution.

KENNEDY: For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.