Burning Down The House: Artistic Freedom Under Fire In Egypt
On the morning of Oct. 28, 1971, Egypt woke up to a shock: The Khedivial Royal Opera House was on fire. The 100-year-old, rococo-style architectural gem in downtown Cairo burned to ashes. Ballet costumes, theater sets, musical instruments and velvet curtains were all gone.
Now, 40 years later, the new Cairo Opera House is on fire. This time, the threat isn't faulty electric equipment but administrative decisions that Egyptian artists say are fatal to their rich cultural scene.
The spark? The sacking of Enas Abdel-Dayem, the opera house director. Egypt's culture minister, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, defended the decision, saying he wanted to "inject new blood" into the Egyptian cultural scene.
For three days, Egyptian artists canceled concerts, ballets and operas at the country's biggest performance venue. Last week, they took their dancing and singing to the culture minister's office, engaged in a vibrant sit-in that has entered its second week. They vow not to leave until the culture minister does.
The angry protesters say the firing is an example of how the ruling Muslim Brotherhood is trying to control Egypt's cultural scene through the new minister. Some fear the Islamists are trying to suppress artistic expression that runs counter to their conservatism.
Similar culture clashes have been playing out in other Arab countries over the past couple of years as Islamists have risen to power and moved against more secular institutions.
In addition to Abdel-Dayem, Egypt's culture minister has fired seven senior figures from top positions in the ministry for no legitimate reasons, according to the protesters.
Performers' solidarity with Abdel-Dayem was immediate. On May 28, the day she was fired, the cast at the Cairo Opera House canceled a performance of Verdi's opera Aida and went on strike. It was a decision met by an extended standing ovation and shouts of "Bravo."
"Since the day he was appointed, [the culture minister] has issued random, irrational and illegal decisions and fired successful leaderships, complying with the instructions of the ruling regime and attempting to eradicate the identity of the nation," conductor Nayer Nagui announced from the stage.
Behind him, the cast held banners condemning the "Brotherhoodization" of Egyptian culture. In front of him, spectators chanted "Long Live Egypt!"
The Cairo Opera House is not the first Egyptian institution to suspend its activities to protest measures by the Islamist-dominated government.
However, its strike opens a new, high-profile battlefield for Egyptians dismayed at the country's direction since the 2011 uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak and led to the election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi as Egypt's leader. It's a decision that's created political polarization over the country's identity.
The current culture war is a part of this clash. In the narrow downtown Cairo street that separates the Opera House from the Culture Ministry, supporters and opponents of the culture minister stand face to face. Tension, metal barricades and police personnel on high alert separate them.
Only a few weeks earlier, a lawmaker and member of the ultraconservative Islamist Nour Party called for banning ballet from the Opera House, denouncing it as "the art of nudity" and for "spreading immorality."
In response, members of the Cairo Opera Ballet Company staged a defiant performance of the ballet Zorba the Greek outside the Culture Ministry.
"This comment [by the Nour lawmaker] is not a comment. It is a potential draft law," says poet Fatema Naoot, noting the rise of political Islam in post-revolutionary Egypt. "Previously, we would leave them, we would say this is freedom of speech."
"But now that these people are our lawmakers, they have the ability to deprive us from [the arts] if they want to," she says.
Naoot and other artists and authors say they are determined to win what they call "The Battle of the Opera." They're part of the group that stormed the Culture Ministry and vows to occupy its headquarters until the minister resigns.