Egypt/ 1. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments  

Autor: Mounha Al Batrawi, Nermeen Khafaji

1. Cultural context

The Arab Republic of Egypt is a country located in the Northeastern corner of Africa, with an area of 1,001,450 square kilometers. Arabic is the official language of the state, and the majority of inhabitants are Sunni Muslims. However, the country has racial and religious diversity (Christians, Nubians, Bahá'ís, Shiites and Armenians).

According to the 2009 census, the population of Egypt was about 76 million inhabitants. As of May 2013, the website of census bureau shows this number to exceed 84,355,000 not including another 8 million living abroad Egyptians.

According to the Egyptian State Information Service, the country’s population has now reached 95 million (as of Saturday 18/08/2014), representing an increase of one million in less than six months. Inside Egypt the population is 87 million while the population of the diaspora abroad reached 8 million according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ census.

The country is divided into 29 administrative entities (governorates), and most inhabitants live in the Nile Valley, especially in the capital, Cairo, where almost a quarter of the population lives, and Alexandria. The rest of the population lives mostly in the Nile delta, the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, as well as the cities on the Suez Canal. Those regions add to an area of 40 millions square kilometers, while most of the country’s area is a desert and thus uninhabited. Currently, Egypt’s population is mostly urban.

1.1 Socio-cultural perspective
The stable agricultural society helped Egyptians since old times to build a civilization rich in numerous forms of arts such as music, singing, painting, carving and sculpture.

Egypt's location on the Mediterranean was the cause of many waves of migration from surrounding regions, whose people came with their special arts and by time migrants mingled in the Egyptian society and absorbed its ideas, traditions and religious beliefs. Till present day some of these arts are still very much alive, particularly those that appeared during the fall of the Abbasid caliphate at the hands of the Tatars.

The socioeconomic circumstances in Egypt and the surrounding regions paved the way for the emergence development and flourishing of these arts, which basically evolved from the marginalized majority named by historians Al Harafish, Al Aama and Al Zourr, which are basically the underprivileged people who gathered around the outskirts of major Islamic cities from the 10th century to the13th century (during the second half of Abbasid rule) as a result of the heavy taxes imposed on agricultural lands.
Thus those people abandoned agriculture and went to the big cities, in which commercial activities flourished, in search for their daily bread since.

As the suffering of these people worsened, a number of folk arts evolved as a mean for amusement and entertainment and also for rebellion against the existing situation.

The new arts were mostly improvised and were a mix of seriousness, drollery, reality an imagination, and they were filled with vulgarity and obscenity.

One of the key forms of art that continued till our present day are the shadow play, folk songs, folk stories, tale of Antara Ibn Shaddad and tale of Al Zaher Beibars.

Hence folk arts may be considered a cell of the people's body that passes its soul and genes from generation to generation through the ages. These arts are a mixture of images of Pharaonic symbols, Coptic chants and swords of Islamic cult heroes.
Therefore, examining and reviving these arts is an important mean for reading the history and exploring its events since they represent history in the form of songs, dances and inherited stories and they may be considered the unique print of each people as well.

The social and political circumstances that changed from one age to another led to different cultural and artistic products and consequently different tools, especially during periods of freedom that allowed creativity in all fields resulting in diversified forms of art filled with the details of everyday life and the beauty of nature.

While during periods of hardship, conservative and religious ideas dominate causing arts to dry up and decline resulting in a poor artistic product that only reflects the state of degeneration.

One of the prominent examples of that is the period of Ottoman rule, which left Egypt with no poetic, literary or artistic heritage of value, with the exception of Al Gabarti writings, particularly his great book "The Marvels of Antiquities in Rendition and Information", parts of which are inspired by the French Expedition.

1.2. Historical perspective: cultural policies and instruments

Khedivial Reign

The beginnings of cultural policies in Egypt date back to Muhammad Ali era (1805-1849) who gained Egypt's independence from Turkey after three centuries of Ottoman rule, which pushed Egypt back at least three centuries in all aspects of life.

Muhammad Ali aimed to create a powerful empire to inherit assets of the Ottoman state. In order to achieve his goals, Muhammad Ali established a strong army of Egyptians and formed the first official Egyptian government to which many authorities and administrations are affiliated. Many laws were enacted by Muhammad Ali during that period in order to serve his military ambitions.

During that period the core of cultural organization appeared as a result of the modernization process, such as the "Daftarkhana" or government registry to keep government documents and records and independent schools (after education was exclusive to "kuttabs" (small clay elementary schools) and Al-Azhar).

Educational mission were sent overseas to create a bridge between Europe, to benefit from its scientific revolution and modern education and Egypt, which was taking its first step toward modernization.

Egyptian missions were not restricted to applied sciences, such as warfare, medicine and engineering, but also included other fields. One of the shiny examples of that approach was Hassan Effendi Al-Wardani (member of first Egyptian mission to Europe), who completed a study of painting, decoration and fine arts in France.

The Fine Arts study abroad program continued to include many other students including Hussain Effendi Almimar, who was the architect behind the Rifaii Mosque in Cairo.1

Muhammad Ali also established the Public Print House in 1820 to print government publications, scientific, juristic and literary books and various works translated by members of the Egyptian missions who returned home. Muhammad Ali gave generous rewards and bonuses for writers and translators and gave orders that their works should be printed at the government's expense.
The product of this Egypt-Euro contact was manifested in the rise of prominent figures that played a key role in spreading education and culture, such as Refaa Al-Tahtawi, who established Al Alsun (or lingua) School for translation and issued Al Waqaee Al Masriah (or Egyptian Events) Newspaper in 1828, which was Egyptianized in 1842 by Al-Tahtawi after holding the position of editor-in-chief (prior to 1842 this newspaper was issued in Turkish and weak Arabic).

Al-Tahtawi made his newspaper a platform for literary and cultural works in general2 and managed to convince Muhammad Ali to issue a decree prohibiting the smuggling and trading in Egyptian antiquities.

Al-Tahtawi also established the first museum of Egyptian antiquities in Al Ezbekieh area in 1835, however, Khedive Abbas, who succeeded Muhammad Ali, gave a whole collection of antiquities from this museum as a present to a foreign prince.3

The groundwork of the authority of antiquities was established in 1885 during the reign of Khedive Said when he assigned all excavation tasks to Mariette Pasha, and in 1863 during the reign of Khedive Ismail, the Boulaq Museum was opened under the name of "Dar Al Adiaat" or Antiquities House".

Khedive Ismail finished what his grandfather started helped by Ali Pasha Mubarak, who was appointed under secretary of "Diwan Al Madares" or Ministry of Public Education.

Khedive Ismail embarked on developing and revising the education sector by transforming a number of Kuttabs into regular schools and established many schools in Cairo and the country's regions.

He also formulated a school bylaw (endorsed by the Khedive in 1868) and established "Dar Al Ulum" or Science Academy to graduate teachers. The amphitheatre (a place designed to deliver lectures to students in all areas of knowledge) was also one of the significant accomplishments of the age.

In addition, the "Rawdat Al Madares" (or Paradise School) Magazine was issued in 1870 at the expense of the Ministry of Education. This magazine attempted to raise cultural awareness of students and advocate the importance of education. It was through the pages of this magazine that Al Tahtawi advocated women's education and wrote numerous articles for that purpose. Indeed, the first female school was opened in 1873 at Prince Taz Palace (this school was actually established by one of Khedive Ismail wives).

The "Kutubkhana" or National Library was one of the first cultural institutions established by Khedive Ismail in 1870, following the example of Paris Bibliothèque nationale, by virtue of a proposal put forward by Ali Pasha Mubarak, who collected books for this house and formulated a bylaw to manage the house and preserve its books.

The reign of Khedive Ismail was characterized in general by the establishment of scientific associations, such as:
"Al Magmaa Al Ilmi" (or Scientific Athenaeum): a scientific body established by the French Expedition in 1798 and then closed down after its withdrawal. Khedive Said reopened this athenaeum in Alexandria in 1859 and it flourished during the reign of khedive Ismail, particularly in the field of publishing scientific researches. A journal was issued by this athenaeum and it was administratively affiliated to the Ministry of Works.

"Gamiyiat Al Maaref" (or Knowledge Society): this scientific society (which has more than 660 members) was established in 1868 to spread culture through writing, printing and publishing.

"Al Gamiya Al Goughraphia Al Khediwiya" (or Khedivial Geographic Society): this society was established in 1875 to publish scientific and geographic researches and it has a periodic journal to publish researches and discoveries.

"Al Gamiya Al Khairia Al Islamia" (or Islamic Charitable Society): established in Alexandria in 1878 thanks to the efforts of Abdullah Nadim to confront foreign influence, this society opened schools to educate males and females and advocate Islam and Islamic manners, help the underprivileged and deliver lectures and public speeches. This society has a bylaw and has two branches in Cairo and Alexandria and was receiving annual state aid.

The key features of Khedive Ismail era however were the creation of the Comic Theatre in Al Izbekiyyeh area in 1868, the establishment of Opera House in 1869 and the establishment of Zizinia and Al Fairy Theatre.

As a result of Egypt's openness to the outside world and it becoming a cosmopolitan state that absorbed and assimilated the cultures and arts of other peoples, the spirit of modernization soon moved to music and singing thus freeing Arabic singing from the bonds of mouashahat (the Arabic equivalent of terza rima) to techniques and melodies at the hands of Abdou Al Hamouli.
Journalism also flourished and many scientific, literary and political newspapers were published, which played a key role in inflaming nationalist feelings and paved the way for Ahmad Orabi Revolution. Among these journalists were Yaqoub Sannou, Abdullah Nadim, Jamal Al Din Al Afghani and other Egyptian and Levantine writers such as Lebanese writer Selim Naqqash and Syrian writer Adib Isaac among others, who sought refuge in Egypt escaping from the sectarian killing campaign planned by the Sublime Porte in Syria and Lebanon in 1860.5

British Rule
After Egypt was occupied by British forces in 1882, the pace of modernization accelerated as a result of the country's full integration in the international capital market.

The Cairo Tram Network was built in 1896, which connected all Cairo districts and facilitated movement of people from one place to another. As a result, the number of theatres and dancing and singing clubs increased, as well as literary, scientific and religious societies, such as the Egyptian Medical Society, the Agricultural Society and Shams Al Islam Society in 1898.

In 1904 the Arabic Sciences Revival Society was established, followed by the High Schools Students Club in 1906, Literature Rose Society in 1909, Christian Youth Association in 1910 and Workers Club in 1912. Hence many societies and clubs continued to emerge and they became a platform for delivering literary, scientific and religious lectures and poems.6 

In 1897 the foundation stone of Egyptian Antiquities House "Egyptian Museum" was laid and in 1902 it was officially opened. During the same year the Book House and Arabic Antiquities Service "Islamic Museum" at Bab Al Khalq were also opened.
Another important event that should be mentioned is the issuance of Woman's Liberation book in 1899 by Qasim Amin, which attracted public attention for a very long time.

The Tram network also allowed residents of the capital to stay up late at night, which was something unfamiliar before, and a result young people became fond of theatres and dancing and cinema clubs.

A number of theatres were well known in 1896 such as the Arabic Theatre of Abi Khalil Al Qabani at Abdel Aziz St., Arabic Acting House of Salama Higazi at Azbakia Garden's northern gate St., Egypt Arabic Theatre of Iskandar Farah and the Abbasid Theatre.
In addition, a number of troupes came from Syria and Lebanon in 1896 such as Nicolas Masabni Troupe and many troupes were formed during that period such as Al Surour Troupe of Michael Guirguis, with which the genius composer Sayed Darwish performed many roles. In 1898 Suleiman Qirdahi established his troupe which included female singer Malak Surour and actress Labiba Milli who preceded Munira Al Mahdiyeh who was the first Muslim theatre actress (Muslim women were strongly discouraged from performing art occupations).

After the Tram Company built its coast line, some theatres moved to Rod Al Farag during the summer season, and as theatrical activities became more vibrant, stage writing, translation and Egyptianization became increasingly active. Some of the well-known plays during that period were "al Ana Wal Qahr in Dukhool Napoleon Misr" (or anguish and suffering of Napoleon's conquest of Egypt) of Abdullah Fikri, "Ghaniat Al-Andalus" (or The Belle Andalusian) of Khalil Kamel, "Awaqib al Taish" (or consequences of recklessness) of Halim Hilmi and "al Fatat al Sharkasia" (or the Tcherkess Girl) of Zakaria Namiq.

In addition, many names became synonymous with the translation and Arabization movement such as Badie Azzouz, Mahmoud Massoud, Khalil Naqqash, Michael Farag, Dimitri Nicolas and Naguib Haddad.

The criticism movement also flourished given the fact that many troupes were accused of presenting comic shows filled with themes of love and adventures of lovers that conclude with vulgar belly dance.

The occupation of Egypt created a mode of resistance that was reflected in various artistic, cultural and intellectual forms. Theatre was one of the tools of resistance and this prompted the British army to issue the "Theatrical Regulations" (1907-1911) which put theatres under police control and permitted police officers to close down any theatre if the show contained any scene or phrase that violates public order or manners.

Singing also flourished during that period and one of the most prominent singers was Abdou Al Hamouli (died 1901), Sheikh Salama Higazi (died 1917), Youssef Al Manyalawi, Saleh Abdel Hay, Mohammed Othman, Malak Surour (female singer), Saleh Al Arabi, Maryam Gawad (female singer), and the great Sayed Darwish, who worked in many Cairo theatres and played a key role in developing Egyptian music and inventing the operetta (musical comedy) as a new singing form.

As a result of the prominent status of music in the hearts of the vast majority of Egyptians, the Oriental Music Institute was opened in 1929 and in 1932 the 1st Music Conference was held under the auspices of King Fuad, in which many artists from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, North Africa and Europe. This conference was one of the great events celebrated by Egypt and the world.

The opening of the Egyptian University also helped in maturing the intellectual, philosophical and scientific product and in nourishing the national movement that was demanding independence.

In general, the period from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century (prior to the capturing of power by the Free Officers) was characterized by a space of freedom in the fields of writing, acting, journalism, singing and folk literature.

In those climates some of the greatest Egyptian geniuses in the field of music rose such as Sayed Darwich, Salama Higazi, Al Sunbati, Al Qasabgui and Um Kalthoum, and in the field of thought and literature such as Taha Hussein, Louis Awad and Naguib Mahfouz, in addition of large number of prominent directors, actors and actresses in the fields of theatre and cinema.

This however doesn’t suggest that that age was free of censorship and confiscation; the first decision to confiscate a book was taken by Mohammed Ali based on an advice by England Council "Solt", who conveyed to Mohammed Ali that a book entitled "The Religion of People of the Orient " advocates atheism and speaks evil of Islam. As a result, all European citizens were banned from printing any book in Boulaq Print House without prior permission from the Pasha.7 

Another book entitled "Islam and Governance Rules" written by Sheikh Ali Abdel Razek and issued in April 1925 was confiscated during the reign of King Fuad for political reasons. King Fuad aimed to be the Caliph of Muslim World after the fall of Ottoman Caliphate at the hands of Ataturk in 1924, but Sheikh Ali said in his book that the Caliphate is not a religious system mentioned in the Holy Quran.

In 1926, a book about Pre-Islamic poetry written by Dr. Taha Hussein was confiscated by authorities and Dr. Hussein was accused of impugnation of the Holy Quran. This approach however took more rigid forms later on starting from Nasser era till present date as mentioned in our introduction.

Nasserite Reign
After the military coup in July 1952, the ousting of the monarchy and the declaration of the Republic, cultural policies and institutions became closely linked with the new military regime, which sought to confirm Egypt's Arabic identity. The regime also attempted to control all the country's institutions, including cultural ones, and nationalized all newspapers.

Using art and culture to propagandize its cause, the new regime established a number of agencies and institutions, such as the Ministry of National guidance. The first ministry of culture however was created in 1958 under the name Ministry of Culture and National Guidance and in 1959 the new regime began establishing culture palaces and houses in all governorates.

Popular culture during Nasser era was dependent upon promoting the accomplishments achieved by June revolution, such as independence from Britain, agrarian reform, development and stressing that the new regime is biased toward the underprivileged.
Out of its "culture for all approach", the state aimed at the masses in both rural and urban areas and contributed in discovering and developing talents in all fields and this was the golden era in the history of popular culture.

The Popular Culture Authority (established in 1945 under the name the Popular University during the monarchic regime) sought to collect and refine folk heritage and develop folk arts, thus giving birth to Reda Troup for Folk Dance.

The system of government during Nasser era was characterized by rigid centralization and the economic reforms (whose effects were primarily visible amongst the middle class) were accompanied by a state of oppression and strict control over all institutions. This situation led to the disappearance of private newspapers and the domination of free officers as heads of all institutions. Thus Salah Salem (one of the members of the revolution's leadership board) was appointed head of Journalists Syndicate and even Abdel Hakim Amer (Field Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer) was appointed head of Sufi Guilds!8 

The Intellectuals Covenant put forward by The Socialist Bulletin in 1965 portrays more clearly the real situation; culture is not an investment arena but a service offered by the socialist state to citizens in return for the taxes they pay. And just as journalism was to Nasser a message aimed at rendering success to and consolidating the revolution given that revolutionary stories, plays and films drive people to the battlefield, wake people up, force them to unite and inspire them to take their destiny in their own hands based on the fact that "art is essentially an invitation for something". Nasser also said that the socialist state should control works of art and suggested that the control criteria should "is this work of art serves popular interests?", provided that the attitude toward works of art of backward and reactionary contents is to present them on a very small scale in a bargain that allows such works in return for celebrating, propagating and increasing the audience of every work of art that champions socialism.9 

Dr. Sarwat Okacha played a key role in establishing the Arts Academy in 1969 and he served as minister of culture and national guidance from 1958 to 1961 and when the ministry of culture became a separate entity in 1966, Dr. Okacha remained minister of culture until 1970.

Anwar Al Sadat reign

After the Nasserite reign and the rise to power of Anwar Al Sadat, new developments on the political and economic levels took place, which brought about profound changes in the Egyptian society and reflected in all types of cultural product, including encouraging the Islamist movement as a means of eliminating leftist ideas.

These changes were manifested in Article 2 of the 1971 constitution: "Islam is the religion of the state and Arabic is the official language and the principles of Sharia are the main source of legislation".

This marked Egypt's fall under the control of religion, which dominated the fields of media and education and reached its peak in the 1990s. As a result, the condition of culture palaces, museums and theatres deteriorated and the sanctioning of private publishing houses facilitated the printing, publishing and promotion of cheap religious books.

By the late 1970s, the sectarian tone became very loud and resulted in the unfortunate incidents of "El Zaouia al-Hamra"10 and soon afterwards clergymen became the dominant force in folk culture, which was helped by Egypt's openness to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, which were labeled during Nasser era "reactionary countries".

In September 1981 the Ministry of Culture became a separate entity and separated from education and media and this coincided with the rise of armed religious groups, such as Islamic Jihad which assassinated Al Sadat.

Hosny Mubarak Reign starting 1981, till present days through the Arab Spring Revolution

Since the late 1981, Egypt has been living in the age of privatization and new liberalism which turned culture, education and all basic services into priced commodities. Thus the role of state institutions in terms of providing basic services, mainly cultural institutions, visibly declined, while the role of the security establishment became paramount and was primarily dedicated to protect the regime.

This deterioration was associated with the rise of radical religious organizations, which reached its climax in the 1990s with the attempted assassination of prominent novelist Naguib Mahfouz over his controversial novel "Awlad Haretna" and the murder of Farag Fouda over his book "Absent Duty", not to mention the numerous "hisba" cases that were filed during that period, most famous of which is the case of Dr. Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid filed to separate him from his wife. The sectarian tone continued to get louder resulting in frequent bloody confrontations in many places such as El Koshh, El Oudaisat, Malawi and Alexandria. 

With the entry of Egypt into the new liberal age, independent cultural associations began to appear despite the existing laws that restrain public freedoms, in addition to the emergency law in force for more than quarter of a century. However, these associations have their own political agendas that attempt to fill the gap left by official cultural institutions.

Thus the general cultural scene can be summarized with a dichotomy between a fanatical, backwards viewpoint and a superficially-liberal, backwards one.

The most important political changes since Mubarak step down is manifested in the presence of the plurality of ideological orientations, each trying to pass their political agenda by campaigning to convince the Egyptian voter with the validity of their cause, and their ability to achieve the voters’ objectives, against their opponents capabilities, Egyptian voters experienced decades ago the democratic process and their voice effectiveness in formatting the Egyptian political scene. The people’s contribution to public affairs and their civic ballot duty have been uneven at best.

After June 30 2013, the uprising against Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic ideological project, followed by the Nahda and Rabaa protests which had a big effect to the extent of violent and extremist phenomena shown by some leading figures of both camps, led to a wave of violence in a number of Egyptian provinces in response to the bloodshed and a number of deaths in both camps before the protests were broken up. Only then did the Egyptian government list the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization on 25 December 2013, banning membership of the organization and any related activities, including protests. The Muslim Brotherhood was also held responsible for the numerous bombings that happened in the country leading up to this date.



[1] Muhammad Ali, part 3, Abdul Rahman Al-Rafee

[2]  History of Modern Egyptian Thought, Dr. Louis Awad

[3]  Ismael Era, part 2, Abdul Rahman Al-Rafee

[4]  Previous source 

[5] History of Modern Egyptian Thought, part 2, Dr. Louis Awad

[6] Cairo Tram, Mohammed Sayed Kilani

[7] From a report on freedom of thought and creativity 2009, Freedom of Though and Expression Foundation 

[8] Worries of an intellectual in a confused nation, Abdul Khaleq Farouk.

[9] Holy Battle, Cherif Younes

[10]   A poor district of Cairo, where sectarian riots against the Copts erupted in June 1981 for several days, triggered by a dispute on a piece of land. The incident turned out to be a pogrom that cost 81 dead according to the government resources not to mention the sabotage fire in so many houses and stores.

Capítulo publicado: 01-04-2016