A future up for grabs
The sense of waste — of lives lost, time wasted and Egypt’s cultural ascendancy squandered — prevails among artists here. It seems to have fueled a sense of urgency.
Nagla Ezzat is among the younger artists who have turned to activism. A decade ago, when her drawings were on display in the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, she too knew exactly where the red lines were: Avoid sensitive subjects, stay positive, never criticize the regime.
Today she is pouring her energies into publishing a comic book depicting the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, using the work of prominent Egyptian cartoonists. It is designed to teach basic lessons in democracy.
No matter what sort of government replaces the old regime, artists say they are determined to have more freedom and security. In the past, many arts groups were forced to work clandestinely, or register as nongovernmental organizations, which meant their activities were closely scrutinized for political content by the Ministry of Social Solidarity.
Basma El-Husseiney, who runs an arts service organization in Cairo, says that a coalition of 80 cultural organizations from across the arts spectrum is working to suggest revisions to Egyptian law that would give arts groups independent, nonprofit status, similar to that enjoyed by arts groups in most Western countries.
That simple change, allowing them to work openly, accept donations without being taxed and create art without government intrusion, could spark a renaissance for the arts in Egypt.
“They don’t want to be left out,” she says.
Artists here are particularly engaged with influencing the future of the freedom of expression. The revolution is still up for grabs, they say, with powerful, entrenched interests dragging Egypt in different directions. They are grappling with huge historical uncertainties: What happened? Has anything changed? And they are turning to the literature of South America, films made in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, even French comic books from the 1960s, for answers. Baladi, who designed the Tower of Hope, speaks in almost mystical terms about the days she spent in Tahrir Square and what it all meant.
“It was like a magnetic field,” she says of the crowds that occupied Cairo’s city center. Beyond political revolution, she argues, Tahrir gave Egyptians a vision of religious and social unity that could refashion the nation’s most fundamental values. Baladi, a Christian with roots in Egypt and Lebanon, imagines the revolution transforming not just Egypt but the world.