Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Sisi regime raids Cairo arts centre

Signs of crackdown ahead of uprising anniversary

By Brian Whitaker


Twenty government officials representing Egypt's Censorship Authority, the Tax Authority, the National Security Agency and the Ministry of Manpower raided an arts centre in downtown Cairo last night and shut it down. Mada Masr website reports:
"At around 7 pm Monday, a group of seven plainclothes officials identifying themselves as working for the Censorship Authority arrived at the Townhouse Gallery. They immediately began inspecting the gallery and offices, including personal laptops, employee IDs and paperwork, office documents, licenses, as well as archival material and artwork on display, according to a Townhouse employee who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.
"Lawyers from the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression arrived at the scene half an hour after the raid began.
"State officials from different bodies, including security and the Ministry of Manpower, continued to arrive, carrying out inspections and questioning employees for approximately three hours, before photocopies were made of their identification documents and they were allowed to leave.
"No reason was given for the raid, nor were any search or arrest warrants presented at the time, the Townhouse staffer told Mada Masr."
One personal computer and one office computer were confiscated, as well as exhibition and archival material, documents, CDs and USB flash drives, Mada Masr says. The gallery was then closed, along with the affiliated Rawabet Theatre next door.
Established in 1998 by William Wells, a Canadian resident of Cairo, the Townhouse became prominent feature of the city's "alternative" arts scene. According to one observer (quoted here), it has "shaped the perceptions, political values, and intellectual mindsets of an entire generation of Egyptian and regional cultural innovators".
Needless to say, the Egyptian authorities were immediately suspicious of it. Maria Golia writes:
"Townhouse opened its doors at a time when the state exercised mind-numbing control over cultural venues and artistic output so that its establishment was tantamount to a political act. 
"Within months of its opening, Townhouse was accused in the press by Fuad Selim, director of a state-owned gallery, of being a Zionist enterprise. The Ministry of Culture reacted not long after, forbidding its art school students from frequenting Townhouse; state security raided the premises and confiscated computers, claiming that the artworks shown in the gallery damaged Egypt’s image."
Gradually, though, the attacks subsided. One reason, Golia says, is that so many new and independent art initiatives were emerging that the authorities had trouble keeping track of them. Another reason was that some of those connected with Townhouse had begun to win international recognition while others had moved on to take up jobs in the Ministry of Culture.
Towards the end of the Mubarak era Townhouse seemed to have achieved a degree of official acceptance, though its relationship with the state was still an uneasy one.
Last night's raid, however, signals a return to the bad old days. The involvement of multiple government agencies in what appears to have been a fishing expedition suggests the Sisi regime wants to close Townhouse permanently and is looking for a legal pretext to do so.
Since seizing power in 2013, the regime has been much criticised for its brutal suppression of Islamists but – simultaneously and less noticeably – it has also been cracking down on secular/liberal elements and independent-minded journalists.
The Townhouse raid may just be part of that pattern. However, it's worth noting that January 25 – the fifth anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak – is less than a month away and the regime may be trying to pre-empt any related activity on the streets.
Yesterday, the regime also arrested four leaders of the April 6 movement which played a key role in the 2011 uprising. An official said Sherif Arubi, Mohamed Nabil, Ayman Abdel Megid and Mahmud Hesham were accused of "inciting violence" and would be held in preventive detention for 15 days.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Tuesday, 29 December 2015

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