Mashrou' Leila Ban Highlights Struggle for Arts and Culture in Egypt

Published September 27th, 2017 - 02:45 GMT
Egyptian officials banned Lebanese group Mashrou' Leila (AFP)
Egyptian officials banned Lebanese group Mashrou' Leila (AFP)
  • Egyptian officials banned Lebanese group Mashrou' Leila and arrested revellers after a rainbow flag was raised during a gig.
  • The incident showcases the struggle for culture in a country, which was once a regional hub for music and cinema.
  • Creatives tell of rampant censorship and limited opportunities for cultural projects and upcoming musicians and actors.
  • Those seeking culture are sometimes forced to attend expensive private film festivals which are out of reach for most people.

The government crackdown following Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila’s performance in Egypt has marked the latest assault by the Cairo regime on the country’s struggling arts and culture scene.

The popular group may never be allowed to play on Egyptian soil again after a rainbow flag - a symbol associated with the LGBTQ rights movement - was raised during last weekend’s performance at the Cairo Festival City Mall on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital.

Seven people were arrested for raising the flag and local media reports claim that one has been sentenced to six years in prison for flying the flag.

Egypt's Musicians syndicate said it plans to ban Mashrou' Leila from performing concerts in the country again.

The latest response will leave few surprised within the country’s arts and culture sector - now a pale imitation of its glory days when Um Kalthoum's voice was heard across the region and Omar Sheriff entertained audiences across the world in blockbuster movies.

The 1960s and ‘70s saw Cairo firmly seated at the center of arts, music, and culture in the Middle East.

Local concert halls were packed and theatres across the Middle East showcased Egyptian-made movies starring an array of Egyptian-born stars who bright on the big screen.

Today, walking through Downtown Cairo it’s hard to imagine that this was once a hub of cinema and music in the region.

Many of the faded cinemas in the crowded capital are decaying and churning out mass-produced movies. Meanwhile, live music if any is limited to a few select venues dotted around the city.

Amira is an aspiring producer, who believes that government apathy and rampant censorship is making life difficult for people like her.

“The government doesn't help much,” she told Al Bawaba News.

“If anything they do the opposite. When it comes to arts and culture, they allow it to happen only under their supervision,” she added.

The regime's 'supervision' is a fear for many and none of the interviewees who took part in this article used their real names, amid fears of arrest for speaking out.

In the past, the country held successful international film festivals in Cairo and Luxor but a lack of international investment in recent years has left the government to fund of the once prestigious events.

The festivals are now poorly funded and self-censorship is a worry on the silver screen.

The few successful cultural events which do take place are organized by mega-rich private investors and held at luxury resorts, out of reach for much of the country’s population or at low-key events organized by lovers of music and culture and held in cafes or the few remaining back alley cultural spaces in Cairo.

One such event is the El Gouna Film Festival, which is currently taking place at a private luxury resort along Egypt’s Red Sea coast.

The festival is the brainchild of Egyptian billionaire, Naguib Sawiris.

Insiders claim that Sawiris funds the festival himself in order to escape the lackluster efforts and oppressive censorship of the regime.

“The El Gouna Film Festival is fully funded by the Sawiris family and it has nothing to do with the government,” one source close to the El Gouna Film Festival told Al Bawaba News.

“Sawiris doesn’t need the government’s money. He doesn’t need it at all. It was his own idea and he wants to make it an independent film festival that has nothing to do with the government,” they added.

However, the luxury setting and associated price tag mean that the festival is inaccessible to many people.

The country’s other film festivals are struggling for independence and funding under government control.

Amira* paints a bleak picture of the state of both the festivals and the Egyptian film industry at large.

“They might sometimes help festivals by giving them some funding but only if they will invite foreigners and tourism,” she said.

“In Egypt, all of the money goes to big names and special guests but it’s next to impossible for small projects to get any help,” she added.

Many Egyptians who wish to start cultural projects are faced high amounts of red tape and a lack of funding or assistance to make their ideas a reality.

“When it comes to funding there is so much bureaucracy that you sometimes wish that you didn’t have to depend on the funding in the first place,” she added.

“It really limits opportunities for young artists who are already struggling to make it. The Ministry of Culture doesn’t almost nothing to help them,” she said.

Aside from poor funding and a lack of opportunities, the other major concern for the country’s creative talent is censorship.

Ahmed* is a film critic and writer who laments the decline of the country’s once thriving cultural scene.

“We have seen about two or three incidents in the last number of years where Egyptian-made movies have been banned,” he said.

As a music fan, Ahmed is also incensed by the repression of Mashrou Leila fans following last week’s events.

“The Egyptian system has always been an enemy of the LGBTQ community here,” he said.

“This kind of repression makes life more difficult, not only for artists but for everybody in society,” he added.

Meanwhile, Mohammed  believes that the culture and arts scene can benefit Egyptian society as a whole.

"I think that investment in culture and arts is one of the most effective ways to improve the way that people think and live,” he said.

“But the government aren’t interested. It’s sad but they see art and culture as unnecessary rather than a valuable component in everyday life,” he added.

Names have been changed to protect the identities of interviewees.

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