Egypts cultural heritage is one of the most valuable in the world, enjoying much international attention and support. The country also has a central position in the region in terms of its modern cultural production. Its cultural products and trends represented the strongest cultural influence in the region until the 1970s. However this position has in subsequent years been challenged by many political and economic factors. Egyptian culture today still claims the reputation of being the most popular, but not necessarily the most creative, in the region.
Egyptian society is generally supportive of culture, especially music and film. However, conservative religious trends in recent years had a negative impact on the societys perceptions of cultural creativity, something that was for many cultural operators, official and independent, a matter of concern. Informal censorship is often applied by individuals and social groups to books, films, and even songs, to make sure they conform to religious beliefs and traditions146. In addition to that, there is official censorship by the Censorship Board and Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Complex.147 Although the country has a large Coptic Christian minority, and a smaller Nubian minority, this diversity is seldom reflected in cultural structures, or even in cultural productions. National unity is a slogan that is widely used, officially and non-officially, to suppress creative voices coming from outside the mainstream.
The Ministry of Culture and National Orientation was created in 1958, during the brief union with Syria. A stand-alone Ministry of Culture was first introduced in 1965, but later combined with other ministries, such as the Ministry of Mass Media, or that of Education and Research. In 1980 the Supreme Council for Culture was established in an attempt to involve independent intellectuals and artists in public cultural policies. The Ministry is today one of the biggest in the region and includes nine major national agencies148 employing more than 90,000 full time employees and an unknown number of consultants and short-term employees. The Ministrys mandate includes conservation and management of antiquities and archaeological sites, artistic production and distribution, management of cultural venues across the country, organization of festivals, arts education, translation and publishing and international cultural exchanges. Information on the Ministrys budget is not available but there is evidently substantial government support for the Ministrys projects.
Since the early 1990s Egypt saw the emergence of a growing number of independent
cultural initiatives that attempt to present and promote contemporary arts. These initiatives are largely funded by international donors such as the Ford Foundation, SIDA, the Open Society Institute, the EU Commission and European embassies and cultural centres in Egypt. However, they receive very little support and recognition from the public sector and face serious legislative obstacles that limit their ability to register non-profit cultural organizations149, or to operate in the public sphere. In fact, most of them are registered as commercial entities, despite relying primarily on funding from international donors. Although most of these initiatives are in Cairo and Alexandria, and rarely extend activities to other cities and towns, they are generally well connected on the international level and have good experience of working with partners from other countries in the Mediterranean region and beyond. There are also a larger number of young theatre companies and music groups that exists in the main cities but without legal status, access to venues or financial resources. Tedious bureaucracy and tight security measures make it very difficult to organize simple cultural events such as music concerts or theatre performances.
Most independent cultural initiatives started out to provide artists with a place to rehearse, exhibit or perform, and are now moving towards educating or training artists and cultural operators. Those initiatives often link art and culture to education, social integration and social change, and are rarely specialized in one art form, but instead cater to two or more genres. In Cairo, they tend to cooperate with each other and ignore, and be ignored by, official entities. In Alexandria, most independent entities work in cooperation with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s Arts Centre. There is also a large amount of cooperation with other independent initiatives in the Arab world.
There is wide agreement among cultural practitioners in Egypt, including those in the public sector, that the absence of a national cultural policy, agreed by all active players, is a major challenge. There were some attempts in the Supreme Council for Culture to draft such a policy but it never materialized, perhaps because of the lack of expertise in this field in the country. As Egypt appears to be waiting fora political transition, many reform plans are put on hold. However, other immediate needs might be considered in the short term. Improvement of arts education, especially at university level, was high on the list of priorities of many cultural operators. The Academy of Arts, which has seven artistic institutes and two under construction, suffers from shortage of qualified staff and inadequate libraries and training facilities. Two other needs were highlighted: the need for qualified and well trained cultural managers to work in both the public and the independent sectors and the need for extending cultural services and activities to communities outside the privileged circles in Cairo and Alexandria.
149 Cultural non-profit organizations in Egypt can only be registered as social NGOs under the
Ministry of Social Solidarity
Some Independent Cultural Organizations:
Townhouse Gallery, www.thetownhousegallery.com
El Sawy Culture Wheel, www.culturewheel.com
Contemporary Image Center, www.ciccairo.com
Makan (Egyptian Center for Culture and Art), www.egyptmusic.org
Studio Emad Eddine, www.seefoundation.org
El Mastaba Center, www.elmastaba.org
Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum, www.acafspace.org
Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy), www.mawred.org
International Association for Creation and Training – I act, Alexandria, www.iacteg.
Mashrabia Gallery of Contemporary Art, Cairo, www.mashrabiagallery.com
El Warsha Theatre group, Cairo
Major Cultural Events and Festivals:
Cairo International Book Fair, www.cairobf.org
Cairo International Film Festival, www.cairofilmfest.com
Cairo Children’s Film Festival, www.ciffc.org
International Photography Festival
Cairo Experimental Theatre Festival
Ismailia International Film Festival, www.egyptianfilmcenter.org
Cairo Refugee Film Festival, www.cairorefugeefilmfestival.blogspot.com
146 Workers in the Ministry of Cultures printing plant often censor books they consider immoral or blasphemous
147 The Censorship Board practices before-the-fact censorship on music, audiovisual material, and plays. The Islamic Research Complex practices post-publication censorship on these as well as print media. President Anwar Al Sadat officially outlawed censorship of newspapers in 1974.
148 The Supreme Council for Culture, The Supreme Council for Antiquities, The General Egyptian Book Organization, The General Organization for Cultural Palaces, The General Organization for the National Library, The Cairo Opera House, the General Organization for Urban Beautification, The Academy of Arts and the Cultural Development Fund.
The smallest country in the Maghreb sub-region enjoys a relatively favourable environment for the cultural sector. It is largely subsidized by national public funding since the establishment of the Ministry of Culture, especially in certain fields such as heritage. In other disciplines, such as theatre, several organisations were created in the 80s and the early 90s and are still active today, playing a major role in the cultural landscape. The situation is more challenging for the younger generation, which encounters difficulties in establishing its position, hindering a fruitful renewal of cultural and artistic expression.
Tunisia generally enjoys a good economic record and is not confronted with the social issues of its neighbours: religious extremism remains under strict control, and minorities groups are not an issue. Formal and informal censorship is a more sensitive issue for the civil sector and particularly for the cultural field. There is a kind of resignation from a section of society and young people are emigrating in considerable numbers, including young artists who see only very limited opportunities to develop a professional career in the cultural and artistic field.
As from 1961, a special department for cultural affairs and information was established within the Ministry of Education, and several agencies were founded at that time159. In 1969, legalisation introduced a professional artists card, which is still in use. Cultural Committees, Cultural Houses and Cultural Libraries were created and built across the country as part of the decentralisation plans of the 60s. The introduction in 1994 of the code de la protection du patrimoine archéologique, historique et des arts traditionnels (code for the protection of the archaeological, historical or traditional arts heritage) and the new title given to the Ministry in 2004 Ministère de la Culture et de la Sauvegarde du Patrimoine (Ministry of Culture and Protection of Cultural Heritage) attest the government priorities, focussing mainly on tangible and intangible heritage. Overall, the national budget for culture has increased significantly over the past years160 and now has reached 1.5% of the total budget, divided between an articulated network of cultural organisations dependent upon the Ministry and direct support given to the civil sector for publishing, theatre, cinema or festivals. Major projects are planned in the near future, such as the Cité de la Culture which should be completed in 2010. In terms of public arts education, there are several higher arts institutes across the country, some of which recently opened such as the Public High School for Audiovisual and Cinema created in 2004. However, there is still a serious lack of offer for the dance field, technical professions and cultural management. Some private initiatives have emerged, especially in the field of contemporary dance and cinema. The major players in the independent sector are mainly small organisations that were established in the 80s, in particular in the field of theatre and music, and who are connected to the international scene. There are quite a large number of newcomers in terms of theatre companies today (around 250) but most of them do not benefit from funding and barely survive. In the performing arts sector, almost all organisations are private societies: even though cultural associations are not prohibited, no request to set up an association has been approved for a long time. Major music promoters, though conditions may have improved lately, still encounter obstacles when they wish to invite famous international stars or relating to the payment of taxes.
The cinema industrys production and distribution network has suffered dramatically over the last decades: there are only fourteen cinemas left in Tunisia161. However, new initiatives and networks involving international partners, mainly from Europe, have succeeded in developing high quality work and large-scale feature film production, sometimes with the help of European programmes. Publishing is another cultural industry in dire need of partnership: as Tunisia is a small country, the modest dimension of the internal market makes it hard to survive. The USA is investing more and more in the young Tunisian elite though there is also a new trend of conservative Islamism promoting publishing in Arabic (mainly the Koran), to the detriment of publications in French.
In terms of festivals and events, the Tunisian audience enjoys both public and private initiatives in theatre, music, dance, and cinema. A number of young and dynamic new operators, well connected to the international scene, have started to organise small scale but successful events, including digital art.
The most significant international players are the national European Cultural Centres, in particular the French Institute, whose budget for culture is far higher than the other foreign organisations, including the EU delegation. However, and as elsewhere, budget cuts and changes of cultural policies have caused confusion with some cultural operators who have been collaborating and receiving support for decades, including in the Francophone framework. Major foundations in the Mediterranean region such as the Ford Foundation or other NGOs play only a minor role in Tunisia. The EU Delegation organises a popular Journées du Cinema Européen in partnership with various European Embassies and publishes a call for cultural projects.
To develop their activities, cultural operators require more freedom to offer diversified cultural and artistic programmes, including the public sphere. A major involvement of the private sector and of regional and municipal authorities for cultural funding and the supply of better infrastructure would also contribute to a healthier cultural scene. Major mobility opportunities and long-term exchanges, facilitating better understanding and more fruitful partnerships are other key factors to promote a lively cultural sector.
159 such as the Institut National dArchéologie et des Arts (National Institute for Archaeology and
the Arts) or the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs de Tunisie (Tunisian authors and
composers rights society)
160 the heritage budget has multiplied sevenfold in twenty-one years
161 in contrast to the 120 movie theatres that existed in 1952
Major cultural organisations
Africart Cinema, Tunis
Centre culturel international
Centre des musiques Arabes et de la Méditerranée (CMAM), Sidi Bou Saïd,
Editions Ceres, Tunis, www.ceres-editions.com
El Hamra, Tunis, www.theatrelhamra.com
El Teatro, Tunis, www.elteatro.net
Familia Productions, Tunis, www.familiaprod.com
Nomadis Images – société de production, La Marsa, www.nomadis.net
SCOOP organisation, Sidi Daoued, www.scooporganisation.com
Théâtre National Tunisien, Tunis, www.theatrenational-tn.com
Major Cultural Events and Festival:
Doc à Tunis http://docatunis.nesselfen.org
Dream city Muzaq, Tunis, http://dreamcity.over-blog.com
Festival international de Sahara of Douz
Festival échos sonores, Tunis, www.lefest.org/2009
Festival International de Carthage, www.festival-carthage.com.tn
Festival international de jazz, Tabarka
Festival Printemps de la danse, Tunis, www.nesselfen.org
Jazz Carthage, www.jazzacarthage.com
Journée de cinema de Tunis, www.cinematunisien.com
Rencontres internationales de la photographie
Salon de la bédé, Tazarka
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