Gangs of Cairo? Egyptian minister fights culture war

Tue Jun 18, 2013 3:59pm EDT
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By Shadia Nasralla

CAIRO (Reuters) - "Gangs of New York" seems a fitting favourite movie for Egypt's new culture minister, a film studies professor who styles himself an outsider fighting to break the hold of a privileged elite over spending on the arts.

Artists enraged that he fired the head of Cairo Opera, and fearing Muslim puritans may ban ballet, have barricaded Alaa Abdel Aziz from entering his own ministry.

The "culture war" has come to symbolise a wider conflict between the Islamist government and secular opponents ahead of rival mass rallies later this month to mark the first anniversary in power of President Mohamed Mursi.

Speaking at the dusty state publishing house where he has set up camp, Abdel Aziz told Reuters he would ban nothing. Rather, he would support "people's art" beyond the capital, end corruption inherited from the old regime and see that cultural spending reflects how democratic revolution has changed Egyptian society.

"My concern is providing cultural services throughout Egypt, not financial benefits for a few intellectuals," he said in an interview, justifying high-profile dismissals that have prompted the sit-in, and occasional scuffles, at the Culture Ministry.

As for his own tastes, the 52-year-old academic cites films by Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, Iranian and French cinema, and the work of American director Terrence Malick.

One favourite is Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" - perhaps appropriately, a Civil War-era tale of upstart incomers and corrupt, entrenched interests battling for power on the streets of a new country.

That taste for Hollywood sets Abdel Aziz apart from some allies of Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood, who have used the power they won in elections since the 2011 revolution to urge an end to public displays of ballet or belly-dancing, or even censorship of on-screen romance.   Continued...

Anti-Mursi protesters, made up of intellectuals and artists, demonstrate in front of the Ministry of Culture against what they claimed are increasing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood over the Ministry of Culture and Minister of Culture Alaa Abdel Aziz, in Cairo June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany