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Interview with Asem Shalaby, First Chairman of Egyptian Publishers Association Affiliated with Muslim Brotherhood
Interview with Asem Shalaby, the newly-elected President of the Egyptian Publishers Association (EPA), who took the job after the January 25 revolution.
|Sunday, July 29,2012 00:15|
Al-Akhbar: First, let me ask you whether the publishing profession as a whole is likely to be affected in any way by the new political realities in Egypt.
Thus, I consider books one of the means to realize and publicize that event. Additionally, I believe culture is a measure of a nation’s value. So, I believe that our nation will return to its Egyptian identity of Islamic moderation which has characterized it through the course of history.
Shalaby: I was not talking about publishing specifically, but about culture. Publishing, of course, is part of this culture. For I consider that publishing is the larger vessel that contains all other aspects of culture, since books are a fine vehicle for conveying various ideas and words of thinkers to the people.
So, I return to say that culture will see, once again, a great boost – as a vital project in the new political system, based on old and new ideas at the same time, keeping pace with new events all the while. When we look at culture from a broad perspective, we find that it encompasses science, art, literature and the propagation of good values.
Fear for Creativity
Al-Akhbar: There is a general state of fear for creativity under the new political system which is controlled by Islamists. What do you say to that?
Shalaby: I will tell you very frankly, because I originally belong to the creative class, as a publisher, and I am a member of the Brotherhood. I see that the cultural project is ultimately a creativity initiative. Therefore, no-one should fear it. On the contrary, I am certain it will help creativity flourish, develop and excel.
You can see how Egypt's role was so stunted in all fields and domains. Culture was no exception. It was also so stunted. I therefore note, from the first steps of the current political changes, including both presidential and parliamentary elections, that Egypt has already started treading the right path towards restoration of its regional and Arab roles.
This is very clear in great responses and reactions I receive all the time regarding these promising events and changes.
Al-Akhbar: There are those who expect a clash between the creative class and the Islamic movement. What do you think?
Shalaby: Well, they do have the right to express their concerns. Nevertheless, I am confident there will not be any clashes. It will more probably be a case of sharing and participation in the culture project.
I tell you here, as a Muslim Brotherhood and FJP official, I participated in the preparation of the section on culture, arts and media in the FJP’s program.
In this program, you will discover a high degree of openness and transparency based on the pursuit of creative freedom, both the freedom of publication and the freedom of the press, as well as all other freedoms. And you'll find that culture is clearly one of the most comprehensive chapters of that FJP program.
This proves that there are no risks at all threatening creativity. Indeed, you will also find a great emphasis on freedoms, and the absence of prior censorship on creativity in all its forms and types.
Control or censorship here must be effected by civil society organizations associated with the creative individuals concerned, through a code of honor they all agree upon.
Al-Akhbar: Is this fear on the part of artists and intellectuals justified, though? Or is it the FJP’s fault, for failing to effectively market its ideas?
Shalaby: As for the FJP, I can see that its program has not been very successfully marketed as it should, especially its cultural aspects. Even more, perhaps, one can add that Nahda (Renaissance) Project, prepared by Dr. Morsi, only highlights interest in culture, but refers – for more comprehensive details – to the FJP’s program. Of course, if Nahda did mention these cultural aspects – already in the FJP’s program – it would have become its biggest strong-point.
Al-Akhbar: How can you assuage fear in those artists and intellectuals who claim that innovation is at risk in the shade of Islamist movement?
Shalaby: This fear has some legitimate reasons, because in every intellectual framework or ideology, there are extremists. This is by no means true among Islamists exclusively, but certainly among communists and liberals, too.
But when we talk about the main source of perception, and with all due respect to the brothers in the Salafist Nour Party - and they are not one integral homogeneous group – we find they have this controversial aspect in their outlook toward creativity. However, being the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the FJP has clear concepts proven over decades of the organization’s history. If we go back to Imam Hassan Al-Banna’s era, in the thirties and forties, we see that Al-Banna produced eight plays in which all the symbols of art at the time participated, such as George Abyad, and others.
Al-Akhbar: What about the subject-matter of these plays?
Shalaby: Some of the Brotherhood-produced plays were romantic dramas and comedies; some were even written by Sheikh Abdul-Rahman Al-Banna, brother of Imam Hasan Al-Banna.
Even more than that, Imam Al-Banna used to attend opera performances with all his guests visiting Egypt, at that time.
Al-Akhbar: Do you think it is possible for Dr. Morsi to attend performances of new plays?
Shalaby: Of course, it is very possible he would attend theater performances. Indeed, I think he should do so – and not only plays, but also movies and cultural seminars. I can tell you Morsi’s interests encompass much more than just politics. On the one hand, he excels at reciting Quran (Islam’s Holy Book). On the other, he has a great interest in English literature.
To see for yourself the Muslim Brotherhood’s interest in art and culture, you have to read the latest articles by writer and journalist Sanaa Albisi, published a few days ago. In those, Albisi addressed the history of the Brotherhood’s interest in art and culture. You know she does not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Akhbar: Why don’t Brotherhood journalists and media figures take the initiative to highlight this aspect in the life of Brotherhood members?
Shalaby: I must admit, the Muslim Brotherhood’s press and media performance is not so powerful. This is closely related to persistent and painful crackdowns against the Muslim Brotherhood since the fifties and until the January 25 revolution. Those strikes invariably undermined all Brotherhood media efforts, which always remained incomplete initiatives and projects.
Take for example the Brotherhood’s Al-Dawa (The Call) magazine. It was blocked and shuttered. There was also Liwa Al-Islam (The Banner of Islam). The same story. And not only those. If I talk about publishers at large, you find that governments, before the January 25 revolution, used to confiscate all publications issued by publishing houses with Islamic orientations.
I consider that the simple survival of those publishing houses and their continued work, despite all the repression they had to face, is a great achievement in itself. In this context, I would say that such repression also impacted other private publishing houses, not only Islamic ones.
Moreover, those government crackdowns also included the confiscation of certain books and ideas the former regime was afraid of – for whatever reasons.
Thus, I do admit a media failure on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood with respect to presenting their vision of creativity and culture.
Al-Akhbar: Has the Brotherhood begun putting its house in order to avoid these failings?
Shalaby: I think, in the very near future, the Brotherhood will be activating cultural and creative activities such as theater and art group performances.
Al-Akhbar: Is it possible the Brotherhood will produce singers?
Shalaby: Certainly – male and female singers as well.
President’s Intellect and Culture
Al-Akhbar: There are two important axes you must talk to us about. The first is your view of President Morsi’s intellect and culture, as you were colleagues in FJP work. Then, there is the publishing industry – its issues and problems, and their solutions.
Shalaby: First, the two axes are actually linked. As for Dr. Morsi, I worked with him for 16 or 17 years, as a media official in the Brotherhood’s political department. Dr. Morsi started with me, as a member of that department. Then, he became the department’s senior official, and as such he was nominated in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Morsi then became the head of the Brotherhood bloc in Parliament and a member of the Guidance Bureau. After the death of Mohamed Al-Hudaibi, Morsi became the political department’s head. We were very close throughout.
Al-Akhbar: What can you say about the President?
Shalaby: One of the most important qualities of Dr. Morsi, is that he is a very organized person. He is also a conservative person, and extremely polite. For the Muslim Brotherhood, politics is always twinned with morality and high principles. So you always find that Morsi positively affects those around him.
I personally witnessed how he managed the groups he dealt with within both the group and the party. I could see that he was very gentle, never tasked them with anything that was beyond their capabilities. Also, he used to perform tasks personally, never claiming credit for himself, but for all members of his group. Thus, I can affirm he is a true gentleman.
Al-Akhbar: Why didn’t the FJP nominate him at the beginning of the presidential elections process?
Shalaby: This issue is related to internal calculations within the party, especially political calculations. Al-Shater was the person closest to other political parties, movements and stakeholders.
I mean, for example, the Salafi movement. Al-Shater is closer to them, since he cooperated with them to establish institutions that would organize Islamic work. So, he was in the forefront in the political scene.
Al-Shater has another advantage, namely the economic edge, at which he has a decent history. And you know our economic problems are pretty much at the very top of the popular agenda.
That is why the FJP chose Al-Shater in the beginning, as a talented man with extensive economic experience and expertise, even on a personal level.
Al-Akhbar: What about the nomination of Dr. Morsi?
Shalaby: I believe it was a good choice. I positively expected it. By the way, when we worked in the political department, we asked for the FJP to review its decision to nominate Al-Shater, suggesting the nomination of Dr. Mohamed Morsi instead, for purely political considerations.
But our suggestion was considered rather late in the process. You understand, Al-Shater himself has acknowledged that Dr. Morsi boasts several advantages, like the fact that he is more involved in the political process, and that he has a stronger political standing.
Thus, Dr. Morsi is indeed the right person for this period Egypt is going through right now. This is what I believe. The best person to assume political office is someone who has made it gradually through the political process.
Al-Akhbar: What do you think are the problems that stand in Dr. Morsi’s way after he took office?
Shalaby: We have hundreds of accumulated problems, dating not from 50 or 60 years ago, but from even earlier. We can see that Egypt and the Arab and Muslim world are muddling through a precipitous state of decline. So, now, we're talking about a revival of the Arab world and the Muslim world.
Al-Akhbar: What about the most important problems that must be addressed by President Morsi in this period, according to the principles of the FJP?
Shalaby: The President has announced his plan for the first 100-day project. We have challenges, like for example the traffic problem which cost us millions of pounds a year, and which is an economic issue, too.
Al-Akhbar: What is the rate of success in actual practice?
Shalaby: I expect successful implementation of the president's plan in a timely manner, because I know that Dr. Morsi is not only a man of politics, but a leader who has behind him a strong party: he will not carry out all the tasks personally. He also has many and very important tools to utilize.
Al-Akhbar: What influence do the FJP and Brotherhood have on President Morsi’s political decision making?
Shalaby: Dr. Morsi is a man of intellect, and has his own ideas. Of course, his views will generally reflect his culture and experience. I am fully convinced that Dr. Morsi, after his election as President of Egypt, is increasingly ‘his own man’ as is obvious from his public speeches.
Al-Akhbar: I hope you do not evade the question, and talk about the FJP and the Brotherhood’s influence on political decisions?
Shalaby: In order for Dr. Morsi to succeed, the basic principle should be: neither the FJP nor the Brotherhood should interfere in his decisions. He must have the freedom to act and make political decisions as he will.
Dr. Morsi no longer represents the FJP or the Brotherhood. He has come to represent the whole of Egypt. Following his electoral victory, Dr. Morsi froze his position in the party and also in the Brotherhood.
Al-Akhbar: There are those who say that the FJP together with the Brotherhood stand strongly by Morsi, directing him in all his decisions. What is the truth in this?
Shalaby: The Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP do stand behind Dr. Morsi, in all his decisions. This is correct, one hundred percent. However, I am not talking about directing, but supporting him. This is an obligation, a duty. Decision-making, generally, is Dr. Morsi’s job.
Dr. Morsi is not the type of man who needs to refer to the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau or to FJP leaders. He always takes the initiative. I know Morsi personally. Thus, the decision comes from his own mind, with the help of his advisers. He is certainly a man who also believes in collective action, rather than strictly individual work.
Al-Akhbar: What do you think of reports being circulated about the role played by the USA in the success of Dr. Morsi, in order to implement its plot to divide Egypt?
Shalaby: I believe these are just baseless, incomprehensible fabricated fables. I have heard these stories thousands of times. Let me tell you that the last decision taken by Dr. Morsi, ordering the return of the People’s Assembly to its duties, was at the time said to be taken after a visit by a senior U.S. official. This was published in certain newspapers. I know for certain that this was followed, just before Morsi issued that decree, by a general meeting of the Brotherhood’s Shura Council. We did not hear that President Morsi was going to issue such a decree.
The Publishing Industry is Overwhelmed
Al-Akhbar: Back to the issues of culture and publishing, we ask you... what are the means by which we may develop and boost the publishing industry in Egypt?
Shalaby: First, I am proud that I took this position as chairman of the EPA, after the January 25 revolution, which means I am the first EPA chief under the new regime. For me, this is a great pleasure.
Further, I believe this is closely related to building a momentum towards improving the book industry, allowing it to really bloom, flourish and grow. I believe that will happen sooner or later. It is true, though, that we now live in a state of chaos and mayhem in the publishing world, whether in Egypt or the Arab world as a whole.
In this chaos, we have many negative phenomena, the first of which is of course the phenomenon of book piracy. We held a special conference on this problem as a strategic issue, about 3 months ago, out of our belief that advancing innovation and creativity is linked to respecting intellectual property.
It is historically known that Egypt has seen a relatively low number of counterfeit cases, while Lebanon has always been in the lead in this regard. However, things changed immediately after the revolution, and Egypt ranked first in the counterfeiting of books, as a result of this extreme chaos. We have made a considerable effort, in cooperation with media investigation authorities to reduce this phenomenon.
I believe that we, in a short period, will eliminate this phenomenon altogether, in coordination with all concerned parties. You realize this phenomenon is linked to the security situation in particular. We are trying to activate all the penalties provided by law for this purpose, as a deterrent against book piracy.
Al-Akhbar: Did you stop at this point?
Shalaby: We suggested to the recently-disbanded People’s Assembly a bill to stiffen the penalty for violations of intellectual property rights. This would have been a law now, except that the Assembly was promptly sacked.
We also suggested to the Assembly a special bill regarding the printing of newspapers, and another for turning the EPA into a publishers’ Syndicate.
I reiterate that creativity and excellence in all cultural branches will flourish with originality, soon. Especially in the absence of control by the security services or any type of repressive authority.
*This interview was originally published in AL-Akhbar Newspaper on 15 July 2012.
tags: Muslim Brotherhood / Egypt / FJP / Revolution / Egyptians / Islamists / Presidential Elections / Parliamentary Elections / Nahda
/ Islamist Movement
/ Nour Party
/ Hasan Al-Banna
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