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Culture is the Solution: the Civilizing Mission of Egypt’s Culture Palaces

  • Jessica Winegar (a1)


Since the early 1990s, the Egyptian government has devoted significant resources to new culture projects. Unprecedented numbers of new cultural institutions have been built or renovated throughout the country, including libraries, museums, culture palaces and houses, and creativity centers. These host thousands of public programs every year. The government has also started two new television channels devoted specifically to culture (thaqafa). Book fairs and art biennials have increased in number and expanded, new cultural periodicals and book series have been published, and new cultural competitions and prizes created. Nearly every day in the state press, one finds articles and announcements detailing cultural events and programs, as well as editorials on the importance thaqafa to Egyptian society.



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End Notes

1 The Nile Cultural Channel and Enlightenment (Tanwir) Television.

2 For more on the fights between the Ministry of Culture and intellectuals, see Mehrez, Samia, Egypt’s Culture Wars: Politics and Practice (London: Routledge, 2008).

3 The unprecedented spending on culture also coincides with Mubarak era neoliberal economic restructuring, a connection I explored in Creative Reckonings: The Politics of Art and Culture in Contemporary Egypt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006). Mona Abaza offers an important and detailed critique of government and secularist enlightenment discourses in “The Trafficking with Tanwir (Enlightenment),” forthcoming in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

4 For more on this process in visual arts institutions, including state arts colleges, see Winegar, ibid. Gregory Starrett also analyzes state attempts to manage Islam in the field of education more broadly in Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). See also Schielke’s, Samulistudy of state civilizing missions towards Sufi practice in Egypt in “Policing Ambiguity: Muslim Saint’s-Day Festivals and the Moral Geography of Public Space in Egypt,” American Ethnologist 35(4):539552, 2008.

5 Two newly published works include analyses of elite uses of culture concepts before the Nasser period, uses that continue to this day: Shakry, Omnia El, The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007) and Gasper, Michael, The Power of Representation: Publics, Peasants, and Islam in Egypt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009). Both private and public institutional cultural education and uplift programs pre-date the Nasser era. The immediate precursor to the Culture Palaces was the “Popular University” (al-jam‘a al-sha‘biyya), a combination of government educational programs founded in the 1940s.

6 Two main sources for the public culture programs from the Nasser period forward are Mahmud, Mahmud Sa‘id, Khamsun ‘amman min al-thaqafa al-jamahiriyya (Cairo: Al-hay’a al-‘amma lil-qusur al-thaqafa, 2005), and Al-Bakri, Fu’ada, Al-tanmiya al-thaqafiyya wa al thaqafa al-jamahiriyya. (Cairo: Maktabat al-Shabab, 1992).

7 Khatwa ‘ala al-tariq: khitat al-anshita al-thaqafiyya wa al-fanniyya li-‘amm 2006–2007 (Egyptian Ministry of Culture: The General Organization of Culture Palaces).

8 Since its inception in 1970, its publication had stalled on several occasions, likely due to defunding in the Sadat period.

9 Many state culture workers are believers, and some practice religion actively, even though they might advocate the state cultural institutions’ approach to religion. In fact, they often see the state’s approach to religion as preferred, from a religious point of view.

10 Khashaba, Sami, “‘Ann kalimat al-ra’is Mubarak wa dawr al-thaqafa al-misriyya,” al-Thaqafa al-Jadida 153:46, February 2003.

11 Hassan, Yusri, “As’ila al-lahza al-rahina,” al-Thaqafa al-Jadida 153:812, February 2003.

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Culture is the Solution: the Civilizing Mission of Egypt’s Culture Palaces

  • Jessica Winegar (a1)


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