Egypt’s second revolution in less than three years has it once again struggling to define a national identity. On the surface, this means writing a new constitution, holding more elections, and perhaps experiencing more protests.
Below the surface, however, another identity-forming revolution is afoot.
Basma el-Husseiny, a leading activist for the arts, claims Egypt has seen an explosion of cultural activities since 2011. The overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak lifted many restrictions on the freedom of expression, leading to a flowering of interest in music, dance, poetry, and especially humor.
Her group, Culture Resource (Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy), is a rare nongovernmental cultural organization in an Arab nation, one that uses art in local communities to resolve crises. It has, for example, put up billboards in Cairo that proclaim “It’s My Right to Dance” and “It’s My Right to Sing.”
Culture often has a uniting effect in identity conflicts. Unlike in matters of governance, security, or economy, culture is usually in the hands of the people. They are either creators or audience. That is why authoritarian regimes, whether secular or Islamist, are often eager to suppress or control culture.
Since 2011, Egypt has had no less than six ministers of culture. The last one under President Mohamed Morsi tried to redirect Egyptian culture by firing the heads of the Cairo Opera House, the Egyptian General Book Authority, the Fine Arts Sector, and the National Library and Archives. His action in May led to a sit-in protest by leading performers, artists, and intellectuals. And then in June, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood attacked the protesters.
That was a warm-up act for the mass protests on June 30 that led the military to oust Mr. Morsi and end the Muslim Brotherhood’s creeping anti-democratic tactics.
Now artists and intellectuals are even more active, trying to safeguard their new freedom – from both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. They want Egyptians to see culture as a means for political reconciliation, while also restoring Cairo as the Arab world’s cultural capital.
Arabs caught a glimpse of culture’s unifying magic in June during the finale of the regionwide broadcast of the TV show “Arab Idol.” The competing singers belted out songs from the musical “Les Misérables” (such as “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “I Had a Dream”). But when a wedding singer from Gaza won, Palestinians spilled out into the streets in joy, uniting a divided people for a brief moment.
Even more remarkable, the crowned winner, Mohammed Assaf, made an offhand plea for nonviolence: “A revolution is not just the one carrying the rifle: It is the paintbrush of an artist, the scalpel of a surgeon, the ax of the farmer.”
At its best, artistic expression helps people appreciate each other’s humanity. Like musical chords, it can resolve tensions. Like a poem, it can offer empathy and joy. Like two dancers, it can bring opposites together in harmony.
After having had two political revolutions since 2011, Egypt now needs to focus on its less-obvious cultural revolution. A constitution defines a country’s political contract, but culture defines the identity, narrative, and the future of a people.
It may take time. But the Pyramids weren’t built in a day either.