In a move seen by free speech advocates as “a severe blow to freedom of artistic expression and creativity”, the Egyptian authorities have shut down a highly respected art gallery and an affiliated theatre in downtown Cairo.
By Shahira Amin, reporting for Freemuse
The evening raid on 28 December 2015 on the Townhouse Gallery of Contemporary Art, an independent non-profit art space established in 1998 and the adjoining Rawabet Theatre, raised alarm bells about the diminishing space for freedom of expression in the country.
Rights groups also saw it as a sign of an expanding crackdown on dissent ahead of the fifth anniversary of the 25 January uprising that toppled the authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak.
What started out as a “routine inspection visit” by seven officials in plainclothes from the Censorship and Taxation Authorities, National Security and the Ministry of Manpower who asked to check the gallery’s documents to ensure they were in order, quickly turned into a raid culminating in the confiscation of computers, CDs, flash drives, artworks and archival materials.
A staffer at the Censorship Authority who spoke to Freemuse on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the press, said that “the closure was temporary, lasting only as long as the necessary documents were completed.” The cultural complex will soon be “up and running again,” he asserted.
Lawyer Fatma Serag who works for the Association of Free Thought and Expression, a group that monitors free speech in Egypt, acknowledged that the move reflected the government’s fear of potential unrest amid growing calls by activists for a new uprising to overthrow the military-backed regime.
Located in the heart of Cairo, a short walking distance away from the iconic Tahrir Square where the 2011 mass protests were staged, the cultural venues – among the few remaining independent art spaces in Egypt – have served as platforms to promote local artistic talent through art exhibits, films and performances as well as open debates on the country’s turbulent transition, post revolution.
In an article published one day after the closure of the downtown cultural complex which also includes a library, the New York Times Cairo Correspondents Karim Faheem and Amina Ismail said the move was seen by artists, curators and free speech advocates as “an especially worrying loss.” The journalists described the gallery as “an anchor of the downtown cultural scene” and “a proving ground for artists who have gone on to international acclaim.” They meanwhile, quoted Shiva Balaghi, a curator focused on the Middle East as calling it “a critically important space.”
In a series of messages posted on her Twitter account, Balaghi reminded that “many of the Middle Eastern artists whose works are showcased at the Tate, Guggenheim, Met, Brit Museum and Frieze, Art Basel were first shown at the Townhouse.”
“Many of those who had helped run the Townhouse have gone on to become curators at the Metropolitan,” she added, noting that she had herself given an “intensive training seminar on Iranian art for young curators at the Townhouse in 2009.”
In the climate of increased xenophobia, the government is suspicious of institutions that receive foreign funding and has taken tough measures to prevent public gatherings for fear they may cause unrest.
In a speech to Al Azhar clerics on the occasion of Prophet Mohamed’s birth anniversary in December 2015, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi warned against protests on 25 January 2016.
“Why do you want to destroy Egypt?,” he asked those instigating the calls for a new uprising.
Raid on publishing house Merit
Hours after the raid on the Townhouse, officials from the Censorship Authority and security agencies also stormed the new downtown premises of Merit, an independent publishing house that supports promising young Egyptian and Arab writers by making their literary works available.
In this latest attack on major cultural spaces in Egypt, 23-year-old Mohamed Zein, a Merit staffer was arrested and interrogated for several hours by prosecutors before being released.
Mohamed Hashem, the owner of the publishing house, has admitted that he has yet to “complete the paperwork necessary for the new premises to operate.”
He however, questioned the timing of the raid, saying that he believed it was prompted by a series of literary seminars held to express solidarity with Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayyad who has been sentenced to death by the Saudi regime on charges of ‘blasphemy’.
Campaign and seminar for Fayyad
On 3 December 2015, I attended the first of those seminars held as part of a regional campaign under the banner ‘Freeing a poet with a poem’. Merit had organised the seminar to coincide with similar book reading events held simultaneously in Tunis, Gaza and Ramallah in the hope of piling pressure on Saudi authorities to renege on their decision to execute the prolific poet.
The seminar was attended by several prominent intellectuals, human rights activists, poets and writers opposed to the “unjust sentence.” They took turns to read Fayyad’s verses from a collection of his poems, published by Merit in 2015, entitled ‘The Instructions are Inside’.
Former Minister of Culture Emad Abu Ghazi who was among the participants in the seminar, insisted there was “nothing blasphemous about Fayyad’s work.”
“Muzzling government critics”
Maha Shahbah, a filmmaker and one of the organisers of the Merit seminars, said she believed the recent raid was aimed at muzzling government critics ahead of the 25 January anniversary.
“It is another attempt to silence dissenters,” she said, adding that “such moves can only be counter-productive. Opening up the space for free expression and discussion is the only way to restore stability not vice versa.”
UPDATE 4 JANUARY 2016 | 20 NGOs have signed a statement condemning the recent raids against arts and cultural venues, and calling for the reopening of all shutdown cultural places:
‘War on Creativity Closure of Townhouse Gallery & Rawabet Theater is Another Step to Shut Public Space in Egypt’
“The undersigned organizations express condemnation of the repressive measures that have been recently taken against a number of Egyptian cultural institutions. These measures reached the extent of storming a number of those cultural institutions, inspecting their belongings, and shuttering some. An example is what has recently transpired to Townhouse Gallery, Rawabet Theater and Merit Publishing House. Likewise, some security forces raided Zero Production Company last August, while Contemporary Image Collective (CIC) was stormed in early November, and some employees have been arrested for short periods.”
» Home page of the Townhouse Gallery: www.thetownhousegallery.com
» Townhouse Gallery’s page on www.facebook.com
» #Townhouse on Twitter
» New York Times – 29 December 2015:
Egypt Shuts Arts Venues Amid Signs of Clampdown
» Mada Masr – 29 December 2015:
Townhouse Gallery, Rawabet Theater closed after interagency raid
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— GeorgDiez (@GeorgDiez1) December 29, 2015
Photo on top of this page: The Townhouse Gallery. Courtesy of transartist.org