In the four years since protests toppled the former president, Hosni Mubarak, events in Egypt have followed a chaotic path. From the euphoria of a revolution to the cynicism of a coup, the closest thing to a coherent narrative may be a dizzying list of dates marking the moments when everything changed.
Future historians will have no trouble grasping the importance of 25 January 2011, the day when demonstrators began demanding the fall of the regime. Nor 17 days later when Mubarak resigned, sparking jubilation in the streets. Nor 3 July 2013, when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was deposed. Nor 14 August 2013, the Rabaa massacre, when police raided an encampment of pro-Morsi supporters and horrific violence ensued.
Recently, another quieter date lodged itself onto the list. 10 November 2014 was the deadline for all Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Egypt to fall in line with a new law – a relic of the Mubarak era, redrafted by the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – which requires them to register with the state and apply for official approval before accessing their own funds, staffing their offices or structuring their boards.
At a time when a staggering number of advocates for pluralism and dissent have been imprisoned, draft legislation on the behaviour of NGOs may seem wholly inconsequential. But, combined with an amendment to the Egyptian penal code that effectively criminalizes foreign funding (and any work at all that could be construed as threatening to national unity or public order), the new law is a real problem. Break it in el-Sisi’s Egypt, and the government can throw you in jail for life.
Of course, the NGO issue speaks to a broader crackdown on some of the liveliest areas of Egyptian civil society, where human rights activists, radical thinkers, intellectuals and artists reside. Already, Al Mawred Al Thaqafy – a supporter of community theatre groups and a children’s music school in a Cairo slum – has suspended its activities in Egypt. The Carter Center, with its election-observation missions, closed its Cairo office, citing an environment inhospitable to political participation. The award-winning Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies moved its entire operation to Tunis.
William Wells, founder and director of Townhouse gallery, tells me that many artists are not only leaving their studios and the Downtown Cairo neighbourhood that was their milieu for years, but are leaving the country and the art world altogether. Almost all of the organizations that built the city’s contemporary art infrastructure – including Al Mawred, the Contemporary Image Collective, Studio Emad Eddin Foundation and Townhouse – are in precarious positions, because they are either registered abroad or run on foreign funds. Many have been advised to burn their contracts and financial records.
‘We know el-Sisi is not targeting arts organizations. He doesn’t care,’ says Tarek Abou El Fetouh, the founder of the Young Arab Theatre Fund (YATF) who stepped down as director last summer. The real crackdown is on human rights. ‘But the punishment is so severe that no one wants to take the risk.’ The law makes it possible for anyone from vengeful directors general to vindictive bureaucrats to snitch on anything or anyone they don’t like. More, it threatens to bury such organizations in an administrative morass. ‘If the goal is to drain people of creative energy, then they are incredibly successful already,’ says Mai Abu ElDahab, the Brussels-based curator who took over Abou El Fetouh’s position at YATF. Moreover, it utterly distracts people from the bigger issues at play, including the reality that Egypt today is under a regime even more airless and repressive than Mubarak’s.
Speaking on a panel in New York a year ago, the playwright Ahmed El Attar, founder of Studio Emad Eddin and D-CAF (Cairo’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival), placed artists at the core of recent events in Egypt. ‘Without them,’ he said, ‘all the work on social development or democracy or freedom or equality is futile.’ He added: ‘I’m not claiming that art changes society but these few moments we experience in a play or a film or a concert or an exhibition, when you get a glimpse of what love is, you don’t actually understand it, you just feel it. And these concepts that are very vague and absurd – like love, freedom, independence – they become very real. You actually live them. This is real change.’