Cultural Policies in the Arab Region

by Basma El Husseiny

Copyright: Andreas Hartmann

Basma El Husseiny, director of Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (Cairo), at the opening ceremony in the Theatre for Lower Saxony in Hildesheim.

I’m very honoured to be talking in this important intellectual gathering that brings together some of the best minds and efforts in the field of cultural policy from around the world. I would like to start with an explanation of how I became involved in this field to the extent that I find myself here today. I was, am and will always be an activist. To me this means that I’m primarily interested in actions rather than in theories. It was the actions, or mostly the lack of actions, of those responsible for organizing the cultural scene in the Arab region, that made me become interested in cultural policy theories.

I’m sure that many of you know how poorly cultural policies in our region meet the needs of our societies for free creative expression, spaces for imagination and reflection, ways to recognize cultural diversities, and platforms for criticism. The list of problems is long: poor arts education, restricted freedom of expression, limited cultural production, deteriorated infrastructure, minimal public funding, all resulting in very little access to culture for the majority in our societies.

Dr. Scherer referred to the great asymmetry in the distribution of resources between the north and the south, and that the problems of the north are being solved at the expense of the poorer countries. This is absolutely true, but even within these poorer countries there are very sharp differences in the distribution of resources. Public resources in our countries service a small urban elite that likes ballet, symphony and opera and that is familiar with the social codes associated with these art forms, at the expense of the majority of the people who have very little access to any artistic experience.

As you can see, and as it is often the case with activists, I’m used to complaining! However, back in 2009 my colleagues in Al Mawred Al Thaqafy and I decided to stop complaining and do something about the situation. This shift came as a result of the valuable work we have been doing since 2005 in collaboration with the European Cultural Foundation to develop knowledge and skills in the fields of cultural management and cultural policy in the Arab region. At that time, the collaboration with ECF, and later with other European partners such as the Goethe Institute and the British Council, did not result from any explicit EU policy to support change processes in our region. This collaboration was based on an assessment of the needs in the region from our side, and on an understanding on the side of our European partners that improvements in cultural policies in our region would lead to more balanced, more diverse and better cultural cooperation between Europe and the Arab region.

The term “culture policy” is now widely used in our region; but back in 2009, when we started to survey cultural policies in eight countries, the situation was different: the term was rarely used and it was not easy to find researchers and scholars in this field. Throughout 2009, we surveyed the de facto cultural policies of eight Arab countries and published this research in English and in Arabic. Following this, in 2010, we held the first regional conference on cultural policy in Beirut, then started a process of forming and supporting small groups of artists and intellectuals in different countries to analyze these de facto cultural policies and propose improvements. We also encouraged these groups to seek official support to their efforts and invite ministry of culture officials to be part of the process. This programme was supposed to lead to tangible positive results within two to four years.

Then, in early 2011, an unexpected change happened: waves of massive protests swept across five countries in the region, removing their heads of state, and causing repercussions across the rest of the region. A lot has been said about the causes of these uprisings and many international political analysts occupy themselves with writing about their consequences.

Today, these waves have either been suppressed by forces belonging to the old regimes, as in the case of Egypt, or have been transformed into violent armed conflicts incited by regional and international powers, causing shocking destruction and death tolls as in the cases of Syria, Libya and Yemen. Tunisia has been carefully walking a very tight rope towards democratic change, and we hope that the forthcoming elections in the next couple of months will bring more progress.

It is not possible in my opinion to think and talk about cultural policy without considering the political contexts that encompass them, so please allow me to take a few moments to reflect on the political situation in Egypt. As with complicated and violent political situations in other parts of the world, there are many readings of reality. In Egypt, you could find some people who would argue that what we have now in the country is a democratic regime headed by a democratically elected president. Subscribers to this argument would usually go on to explain that toppling the other democratically elected president who belonged to the MB and the following massacres, arrests and bizarre death sentences were all inevitable and necessary to rescue the country from the horrible, oppressive, and theocratic rule of the MB.

My reading of reality is different. After more than one year of getting rid of the MB rule, the present moment in Egypt is a difficult one: the economy is very weak with a huge internal debt and a rising budget deficit, the political horizon is blocked, social tension is rising, human rights abuses are reaching unprecedented levels and, for us working in arts and culture, the freedoms of expression and association are challenged with more restrictions everyday. Having said all this, I must add that my personal view is that the story of the Egyptian revolution that started in January 2011 is far from complete and that there are many more chapters to be written.

How does one think and talk about cultural policy in such a turbulent and hostile political environment? How can we as practitioners cater for the needs of our societies to express themselves creatively and to enjoy the moral and emotional spaciousness that arts and culture offer? I do not really have a clear answer to this question. In lieu of one answer, please allow me to share with you three questions that are boiling in my head.

My first question is about government structures and their effectiveness. In a state of political instability, such as the one that followed the 2011 uprisings, it is often the case that there are frequent changes of ministers of culture and senior cultural officials. The positive side of these changes is that they can help shake off the long standing practices that are based on corruption, favouritism and oppression of freedom of expression. The negative side is that it becomes very difficult to get any government structure to commit to any plan or action on the medium or long term since ministers and senior officials often feel vulnerable and not empowered enough to take decisions. In situations like the one in Syria, the mandate of the ministry itself is ambiguous. What about more than one third of the population who are displaced outside and inside the country? What about the parts of the country that are controlled by armed fanatic groups which are hostile to any artistic activity? For the past three years, the UN estimated nine million displaced Syrians are living without cultural services or activities, except for very small initiatives here and there. Similar questions arise in the cases of Palestine, Libya and Iraq, although the problems faced by each country are different. In such cases, ministries of culture and their policies lose much of their credibility and effectiveness. It is difficult to talk about a “national” cultural institution when the word “national” itself is contested. So, my first question is: Can we talk about cultural policy without effective and credible public institutions?

My second question is about the value of culture. At times of instability and violent conflict, culture gets pushed further down the list of priorities. In terms of the local and international media; the news are dominated by clashes and killings and the art pages shrink everyday. No one is interested to know for example that there is a monthly popular festival that has been held in public spaces in Egypt since April 2011, attended by hundreds of thousands of people, and that it is totally organized and funded by private citizens. With regard to public funding, culture is the first victim to budget cuts that need to be imposed because of the flight of capital outside the country, the cancellation of tourism contracts, and other economic problems that contribute to increasing the budget deficit. When the budget of the ministry of culture is cut, the salaries of the employees remain untouched, so the negative impact is all on the programme budget, which means fewer and poorer cultural activities and services. On the other hand, paradoxically, it is reassuring to notice that the general appreciation of culture in the five countries that have started some sort of political change process has remarkably improved. The visible increase of popular demand on cultural activities is a strong statement against conservative views that artistic activities are immoral or at best wasteful. Hence, my second question becomes: How do we get this change in appreciating the value of culture to be reflected in the media and in public budgets? How do we get the society in general to recognize that this change has actually happened?

My third question is around the role of the civil society: can it play a leading role in defending the position of culture and enhancing the recognition of its value both in the society at large and in the competition over the diminishing financial resources? Can the civil society provide alternatives and substitutes to the almost paralyzed ministries of culture? The cultural civil society in the Arab region is small in size and depends on international donors for most of its funding. There is no accurate source of information on the number of non-governmental cultural organizations in Arab countries. My rough estimate is that there are around 100 effective organizations in Egypt and around 50 in Tunisia, the two countries with the highest concentration of cultural organizations. However, it was this small sector that has been most active and responsive to the needs of Arab societies since the 2011 uprisings, producing plays, films, festivals, publications and exhibitions that reflected on the past very eventful three years. In my opinion, for this sector to fill the many gaps left by the governmental sector, at least for a transitional period, and to possibly play a major role in cultural policy formation on the long term, there is a very important prerequisite: to organize. The sector has to organize itself in a way that makes it possible for other players to interact with it, and at the same time this organization has to be truly reflective of the diversities among civil society powers. Organizing this sector is no easy task, especially with the existing legal and political restrictions, but it is a crucial task. How do we organize this sector? Are there lessons that we can learn from other experiences elsewhere? This is my third and last question.

I don’t think we have the luxury of waiting until the political battles have been settled, and the ministries of culture get stabilized or reformed. In fact, it would be wrong to do so, since the cultural civil society itself is part of these battles and can play an important role on the side of those fighting for freedom. This does not necessarily mean that artists should be expressing political views in their work. In societies where the vast majority of the population have never had experiences such as attending a theatre performance or a music concert, the act of making art and exchanging it, is in itself a political act. It challenges the very way society has been organized and it encourages individuals and communities to question long standing norms and traditions.

As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish beautifully puts it:

Against barbarity, poetry

can resist only by

confirming its attachment

to human fragility like a

blade of grass growing on a

wall while armies march by.