Mohamed Hassanein Heikal’s death in February marked another loss in the ever-shrinking cast of artists, actors, writers, singers, and journalists who awaken a feeling of nostalgia for many Egyptians.
The 1950s and 60s in Egypt made up a period perceived as a golden era of culture due to the vibrant mainstream Egyptian arts and media scenes. Talent flowed from singers like Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez, actors like Rushdi Abaza, writers like Naguib Mahfouz and journalists like Heikal, who was editor-in-chief of the most widely read newspaper in the Arab world, al-Ahram. Egypt’s cultural prowess was directly linked to its political agenda, anchored in President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rapidly spreading pan-Arab, anti-imperialist, socialist policies. Artists’ and filmmakers’ work was politicized by Nasser’s aims, taking on themes of decolonization and de-westernization and sufferings of the common man.
But in the decades that followed, Egypt gradually moved further and further away from its status as a cultural crossroads for arts and media. Indeed, mainstream Egyptian film and media today are, by comparison, in a dismal state. This leaves many spectators to ask: How did Egypt get here?
Asking the wrong question
But this is the wrong question. Egypt has always been here. Its seemingly lackluster artists and reporters of the present are not necessarily so because of a talent deficiency. Rather, they function within a field that has embraced systematic repression and dealt with subsequent deterioration since the 1952 Revolution—and yes, that includes the golden era.
Save a few exceptions, most of the celebrated talents in mainstream Egyptian arts and media that dominated the 1950s and 60s were voices that were supported by the state and touted its agenda. This allowed select figures to monopolize their trades and contribute to a long term deterioration of their fields. Only those artists and journalists who supported the new attitudes of the 1952 revolution and Nasser’s socialist policies were permitted to work freely, and this was evident in the censorship, nationalization, and repression of these fields during Nasser’s rule. Liberal editor Mustafa Amin, for example, was briefly jailed twice by Nasser’s regime before being imprisoned for ten years in 1964, following a secret trial that labeled him an American spy. But the state’s repression of Egyptian arts and media outlasted the revolutionary agenda that pro-government artists and journalists found so inspiring, leaving lasting effects on the quality of talent entering these declining fields. Consider the career of Heikal and its long-term implications for Egyptian journalism.
The case of Heikal
As Nasser’s alter ego, Heikal’s talents were captured by the state. He injected his own views into his pieces when they fit the state’s agenda, a practice that was particularly detrimental to the function of journalism when used for deception such as reporting victories from the war in Yemen that Egypt lost, or drumming up support for economic projects that were bound to fail. As a result of his eventual stature, Heikal was soon able to do this with the help of unnamed sources that he did not share and could never be verified. The inclusion of government positions within Heikal’s work was not only the result of his friendship with Nasser, but also his roles as both editor-in-chief of the state-owned newspaper al-Ahram and as minister of information. Though a major purpose of journalism as an arm of civil society is to hold the state accountable with independent information, Heikal did the exact opposite, and as the model whom aspiring journalists were told to emulate, his career is partially responsible for the decline in the quality of Egyptian media. His presence until quite literally the day he died prevented anyone from challenging the way he reversed the role of journalism, helping to establish a mainstream media today that is dominated by unqualified talk show hosts pushing the state’s agenda in the form of angry diatribes.
A well-oiled machine
While it is symptomatic of authoritarian regimes to sponsor those talents who improve and support their image, those governments take equal care to ensure that the singer, actor, or journalist of interest never outshines the state. The personal goals or career aspirations of the state-captured artist or writer are secondary to those of the government. Heikal may have been viewed as an accomplished journalist, but his success hinged on his service to the state. In this respect, he is no anomaly. It was at Nasser’s request in 1965 that music legends Umm Kulthoum—friend of Nasser and fervent nationalist—and Muhammad Abdel Wahab began collaborating. The Star of the East was also involved in charity initiatives for the military and performed a string of domestic and international concerts after the army’s defeat in 1967 which directly benefitted the government. Much like Heikal, Kulthum was elevated to a place where she had no peer. She monopolized her field and prevented others from entering unless they served the same agenda. She did the same things to music that Heikal did to journalism and her success as an artist was always eclipsed by the aggrandizement of the state, this in turn, had negative effects on Egypt’s music industry.
Of course there are those artists who have managed to slip through the cracks, but many of them were forced to overcome much more in the form of censorship, harassment, and imprisonment for not toeing the state’s line; and their careers paid the price. Faten Hamama lost five years of her acting career in self-imposed exile after refusing to cooperate with Nasser’s intelligence agencies, and revolutionary musicians Ahmed Fouad Negm and Sheikh Imam were in and out of prison on several occasions. Even Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who had a complicated relationship with Nasser’s government, missed out on his full potential because his criticism of Nasser’s politics led him to take a literary writing hiatus from 1952 to 1959.
The systematic elevation of pro-state talents and the subsequent decline of Egyptian arts and media continued throughout the eras of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. This is why Egypt’s most famous actor is still 75-year-old Adel Imam, who continues to limp his way into annual Ramadan soap operas. Just before Imam claimed his title, it was held by Ahmed Zaki, an actor at his peak between 1980 and 2000 who paid his respects to the greatness of Nasser and Anwar Sadat by portraying them as the ultimate patriots in the films “Nasser 56” and “The Days of Sadat,” not to mention his plans to play Mubarak in a third movie that was aborted on account of his death in 2005.
Arts and Media today
Today President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi is at the helm of the same well-oiled machine, which seems to have brought Egyptian arts and media to an all-time low, leaving citizens nostalgic for Nasser’s golden era. But the Egypt that sentenced independent novelist Ahmed Naji for explicit content in his book The Use of Life, jailed photo journalist Shawkan for over two years without charge, and continues to extend the detention of researcher Ismail Eskandarani, is the Egypt that Nasser created in the 50s and 60s, that architected the melding of arts and media with the state.
As Egypt continues to silence independent strands of arts and media, these fields will weaken at an even faster rate than before, leaving talent undeveloped and shutting down the last vestiges of institutional avenues to hold the government accountable to its citizens, an issue directly related to the country’s stability and security. This machine, which has been in place since the 1950s, needs to be dismantled, and Egypt’s international partners can start taking it apart by calling for the release of writers like Naji and journalists like Shawkan.
It’s hard to imagine Egyptians in the year 2066 nostalgically remembering today the same way current Egyptians feel about the Nasser era, but if this well-oiled machine is left to operate smoothly, arts and media will sink even lower, leaving Egyptians of the future nostalgic for a Tamer Hosny song featuring Snoop Dogg.