Can you imagine that the people of Riyadh – this extremely conservative city – were the most tolerant! Three decades ago, there were theatres in Riyadh’s schools, and cinema’s in their sports’ clubs, whilst military bands could be heard playing music in the city’s streets. Its holidays were marked by popular celebrations and cultural exhibitions and artistic showcases could be seen on television.
The same can be said about Cairo in the 1960s and 70s, with regards to its theatres, arts and institutes…and this is being said more and more about Kuwait. Whilst there are pictures of the Baghdad of yesteryear that the Baghdad of today would not believe; al-Rasheed Street and its role in the arts, culture and worship. I have a picture of the MGM offices in 1940s Baghdad, so who can believe what is happening today?
We become more shocked when we hear about the conflict in Tunis and its suburbs, and the prosecution of artists in Cairo, which is something that nobody is paying attention to today! Whilst what happened in Alexandria was even worse; as bulldozers destroyed the famous Al-Nabi Daniel Street book market on Friday morning.
All societies are moving forward and hoping for the best, however it seems that we are moving towards the setting sun, and nobody knows when this will rise.
Egypt is facing the greatest example of this phenomenon, as what has happened there represents a frightening beginning against the arts, creativity and two centuries of development. This is important because Egypt is the greatest and last citadel for the arts and creativity in the region and its end will mark the descent of the region into darkness. Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi rushed to meet with a group of artists in an attempt to calm the community and end the war between the artists and the extremists; this has given rise to hopes that Mursi is not from the ranks of the radicals. Everybody who emerged from this meeting was smiling and appeared optimistic, thanking the president for his initiative and position. Perhaps they are right, not because Mursi does not mean what he says, and I believe that he truly does mean this, in terms of support and commitment to protect the arts and culture. However the question that must be asked here is: is Mursi the president stronger than the Brotherhood Mursi?
Who will prevent the attack on the pillars of culture and the role of arts by extremist groups that believe that they brought Mursi to power, not the other way round?
The problem in their reasoning is that political victory and electoral majority means a cultural victory over other cultures, and this victory is therefore a green light against others. A partisan victory and large electorate grants the right of political administration, but it does not eliminate others; this is something that is at the heart of individual rights and freedoms.
Our society is full of loud discussions, and the political and social talk ignores the most important issue – which represents the first step – and this is that rights and freedoms are fixed, no matter if we are talking about the rights of those on the margin or in the minority. They have the right of coexistence, tolerance and the acceptance of others.
What is puzzling is that our Arab world is full of ideas and desires for change and calls for reform; however those who raise the banners of “rights” and “freedoms” do not care to define this to themselves and their followers. What does “rights” truly mean? Who does this apply to? What are “freedoms” and what are their limits?
What is certain is that when the political or religious conservatives raise the slogans of “rights” and “freedoms”, or get involved in democratic work, this means that society has reached its peak maturity, however we have now seen them fall at the first hurdle! In other words, we are facing the culture of retreating in the name of progress, rejecting one form of injustice in order to impose another form of this. In Tunisia, the Ben Ali regime would deprive its opponents of their rights and freedoms, whilst today certain groups within the government are behaving worse than the police did during the Ben Ali era. Following this less-than-ideal introduction of the new era, can we be optimistic for the future? I believe so, because we are in the early stages of a social conflict, rather than a conflict with a regime, and the people will not accept their rights being deprived under any name!