News / Middle East

Egyptian Publisher: Rally an Answer to Divisive Islamist Rule

An Egyptian protester waves a national flag over Tahrir Square, the focal point of Egyptian uprising as opponents of President Mohamed Morsi are gathered in Cairo, June 28, 2013.
An Egyptian protester waves a national flag over Tahrir Square, the focal point of Egyptian uprising as opponents of President Mohamed Morsi are gathered in Cairo, June 28, 2013.
Egypt's revolution has been a double-edged sword for Mohamed Hashem.

As manager of Dar Merit, one of Cairo's most respected publishing houses, he's been happy to see the spread of a fresh political and cultural awareness since the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

But the revolt also ushered in an Islamist-led government that he and other literati view as an autocratic group bent on imposing conservative social views on Egypt's 84 million people - including the liberals who allied with them against Mubarak.

President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood may have come to power through the ballot box, but for Hashem and liberals like him, their promulgation of religious values is totalitarian and divisive, and reason enough to take to the streets on Sunday, the anniversary of Morsi's inauguration.

"This is not a democratic force that believes in elections and the transfer of power," Hashem, 55, said in an interview in his dusty, book-lined office around the corner from Tahrir Square, center of the 2011 uprising.

He said Egyptian Islamism "believes in its own religious authority and that there is no authority above it."

Of course, things were never easy for artists under Mubarak.

Hashem opened Dar Merit in 1998 to give life to an arts scene that stagnated under corruption, censorship and mismanagement during the autocrat's three decades in power, and its struggles have won it Western press freedom prizes in 2006 and since the revolution.

Violence in the Air

When Mubarak fell, Hashem was accused of inciting violence by the council of army generals who took over, although the case was eventually dropped.

The main twist under the Islamists, Hashem said, was a new tolerance among officials of threats of violence against those they do not agree with.

He pointed to the mob killing of five Shi'ite Muslims this month, which happened just days after Morsi sat silently at a conference while Sunni clerics derided Shi'ites, including one who called them "filth."

"Their violent rhetoric is what's left people unable to bear even a year before saying they have to go," said Hashem, who keeps a gas mask and blue helmet on his desk.

Many of Egypt's artists are still haunted by a radical Islamist's knife attack on Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz in 1994.

Officials deny trying to pack cultural institutions with Brotherhood loyalists to carry out an Islamic morality campaign.

But puritanical Salafist Muslims, enjoying newfound freedom after decades of repression under Mubarak, have grown bold enough to call for an end to public ballet performances and  belly-dancing, and to demand censorship of screen romance.

RAlaa Abdel Aziz, Egypt's new culture minister in Cairo, June 17, 2013.RAlaa Abdel Aziz, Egypt's new culture minister in Cairo, June 17, 2013.
RAlaa Abdel Aziz, Egypt's new culture minister in Cairo, June 17, 2013.
RAlaa Abdel Aziz, Egypt's new culture minister in Cairo, June 17, 2013.
The appointment this month of a new culture minister, Alaa Abdel Aziz, a 52-year-old academic from a small Islamic party, unnerved artists who feared a religious-tinged clampdown.

Filmmakers, writers and performers infuriated by Abdel Aziz's dismissal of the head of the Cairo Opera have staged a sit-in to preventing him entering his ministry, and scuffled with his Islamist supporters this month.

Reflecting the Revolution

Abdel Aziz's taste for both Hollywood and international arthouse movies sets him apart from many Islamists, and he denies having any moral agenda, but he does say he wants cultural spending to reflect the changes Egyptian society brought about by its revolution.

"My concern is providing cultural services throughout Egypt, not financial benefits for a few intellectuals," he told Reuters last week.

Hashem, fearing for a cosmopolitan cultural scene long envied across the Arab world, disagrees with the approach.

"The assault is on the national identity of Egypt - not just on culture," he said.

Dar Merit has steadily grown in prominence since it was founded, with titles including "The Yacoubian Building," Alaa al-Aswany's novel of corruption and social deterioration under Mubarak. Its headquarters are a battered, high-ceilinged building in downtown Cairo, a relic of the decaying grandeur the novel portrayed.

Business has got worse since the uprising - Dar Merit used to publish 50 to 70 books a year, and it is now under 30. But Hashem tries to look to a time when, as he sees it, Egypt's democratic revolution finally becomes inclusive.

"People are going to learn more and read more," he said.

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