A prime ministerial decree issued last week that imposes severe restrictions on the organization of festivals and artistic events in Egypt has been met with outrage from arts and cultural practitioners nationwide.
Prime Ministerial Decree 1238/2018, which was issued on June 12 in the Official Gazette, declares it unlawful to “to organize or host a special event or festival without receiving prior license from the Ministry of Culture and liaising with relevant state entities.” These entities are identified in Article 3 of the decree, which states that the committee is to be headed by the minister of culture, and its members will consist of “representatives of the foreign affairs, interior, finance, tourism, antiquities, civil aviation, youth and sports, and local development ministries, whom will be chosen by their respective ministers, on the condition that they hold a senior civil service ranking.”
The committee will also include a representative of the Cabinet’s secretariat, the heads of literary and arts syndicates, as well as a number of experts working in the field of arts and culture, with the exception of those who are directly involved in event organization.
In addition, Article 5 of the decree lists the conditions that must be met by non-governmental actors in order to apply for a license to organize an event. It stipulates that the entity in question must have working capital of not less than LE500,000, and that an Egyptian national must own at least 51 percent of the enterprise.
The presence of representatives from security bodies, such as the Ministry of Interior, within such a committee poses a “great threat” to the local arts and culture scene, according to film critic Tarek al-Shennawy. “Artistic committees must remain artistic, and cultural committees must remain cultural,” he tells Mada Masr.
“It’s perfectly fine to include representatives of entities which actually have a stake in organizing events, like a representative from the Tourism Promotion Board, for example,” Shennawy explains. “But the presence of the Ministry of Interior means that arts will be scrutinized through the lens of security, which is completely unwarranted. This decree puts us in a very precarious position.”
Mahmoud Othman, a lawyer with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), describes all the articles of the decree as unconstitutional. According to Egypt’s Constitution, he asserts, “no entity has the right to practice a regulatory role when it comes to artistic events except for the Ministry of Culture — so why is the Ministry of Antiquities, for example, involved in such a committee?”
The decree defines events or festivals subject to this legislation as “any cultural or artistic events of a celebratory nature, local or international, hosted by governmental or non-governmental actors, with the aim of promoting creativity, protecting the Egyptian cultural identity and diverse heritage, encouraging sustainable cultural, economic, and social development and fostering cultural exchange between Egypt and the nations of the world.”
Othman considers the new decree as another example of the government providing legal cover for the interference of security agencies in the creative process, which he thinks is in line with the state’s recent “obsession” with establishing committees that police creativity.
“This decree is a continuation of the state’s policy of curtailing creativity by sponsoring its own version of it,” he tells Mada Masr. “By enforcing a specific definition of ‘creativity,’ the state de-legitimizes anything that falls outside of it. Security agencies are now the bodies that will decide what is considered artistic and what is not. This means that they will reject acts that use song lyrics critical of the state, for instance.”
Article 5 is also constitutionally unsound on many levels, according to Othman. He explains that the clause stating that the entity organizing an event must be a registered company or NGO, and must have working capital of LE500,000, closes the door for most artistic groups who want to perform their work.
“This is in violation of many constitutional articles protecting an individual’s right to work and to generate profit from their work, and the right of citizens to create freely,” Othman says. “It infringes on the right to freedom of expression and freedom of culture.”
Article 6 of the decree, meanwhile, details the specifications of the licensing request: “The request must be be presented to the Permanent High Committee for Organizing Festivals and Celebrations during the month of June each year. It is to be addressed to the Minister of Culture, and must include the name of the entity responsible for organizing the festival or celebration, the name of the event, the type of activity, its goals, the proposed location, the administrative board, and the sources of funding. In addition, the following criteria must be included as part of the request: company formation documents, the corporation’s operational license, a detailed budget for the festival or celebration, internal directives laying out the administrative plan for the festival or celebration, and the references of those involved.”
Article 6 also stipulates that the request should include personal information of guests attending or invited to the event, be they Egyptian or non-Egyptian.
Othman makes it clear that the step to legitimize these measures is “very dangerous.” Although interference from security agencies in artistic events has occurred regularly in the past, Othman notes, often in a non-official capacity or through various backdoors — such as when several concerts for Egyptian band Cairokee were canceled last year, or the brief banning of director Khaled Youssef’s latest film, Karma (2018) — it was still legally possible to appeal against the government’s restrictive decisions and there was a window to overturn them, he says.
He cites the film al-Mosheer wa al-Raees (The General and the President), which is currently in production, as an example. Youssef, the film’s director, was able to contest the decision to ban the production of the film, and eventually won his claim in the State Council.
The powers conferred to the committee are “very bizarre,” according to Othman. Besides the authority to review an event’s program before it takes place, which is in and of itself unconstitutional, he says, there is another article which confers the committee the power to raid a concert while it is underway, a daunting prospect for event organizers.
“This decree will pose a major burden on musicians, particularly independent artists who can’t just come up with the LE500,000 required to start a company, not to mention the potential censorship their work will be subjected to,” Othman says in regards to the expected outcomes of the recent decision. “Not only do they have to deal with the Censorship Board, renowned for its inflexible procedures, now they also have an another mountain to climb in the form of this new committee.”
Additionally, Othman points out that the new decree does not specify the expected timeframe for receiving a response to a request to organize an event, nor does it state the implications of an absence of response to said request.
The prospect of future concerts looks bleak for young independent artists, according to Osama Ahmed, the founder of the Metal Blast Festival. Other than the prohibitive amount of funding stipulated by the decree, he tells Mada Masr, there are other clauses that will make it difficult to host events — like a clause that prevents an entity from hosting the same event more than once in the same governorate.
“Should this decree be implemented, only two or three entities in Egypt will be able to organize concerts,” Ahmed says. “Perhaps this decree signals a desire on the part of the state to exert a monopoly on events organization in order to eliminate other actors from the scene.”
Toba Ali, an events organizer and the executive manager of Madaar, a cultural space in Cairo, also expresses his concerns to Mada Masr, saying, “We weren’t even finished dealing with the intransigence of the Musicians Syndicate, and the obstacles put in place by the Censorship Board, when we got presented with this decree.” While the decree itself ushers in a real possibility of disaster, he says, he expects the situation to become even more disastrous with the disclosure of its expository clauses and executive regulations.
“Since when are concerts held without permits from the Ministry of Interior in the first place? The state has always been in control, because anyone organizing a concert must already obtain a permit from the Censorship Board, which is affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, and a permit from the Ministry of Interior, in addition to a permit from the Musicians Syndicate,” he continues. “What’s new about this decree is that it sends a clear message to organizers: Do not work, particularly because of the LE500,000 stipulation.
“If a company has a working capital of just LE50,000, and organized events are attended by 50 people, how does this pose a threat to the state?” he asks.
Meanwhile, Mohamed al-Baali, the director of the Cairo Literary Festival, also sees the decree as cause for concern in light of the generally restrictive atmosphere in Egypt. He is worried, he tells Mada Masr, that the decree will be used to further limit any independent cultural activity, a fear that he thinks is justified, considering the manifold constraints on freedom of expression already enforced over the past few years.
“Despite the fact that this decree is being directed mainly at musical events, the way it is phrased is extremely generic, which gives the state plenty of space to interfere with any sort of festival or artistic event,” he says. “Furthermore, the prohibitive conditions it imposes ensures that cultural activities in the country will be entirely dominated by big corporations.”