Foreign funding of the arts in Egypt

Photo by Andri Pol, 2005

My uncle, a retired army general, was proficient in conspiracy theory polemics and relished the opportunity to interrogate me during family gatherings about my work in cultural development, particularly with the Ford Foundation. He’d maneuver deftly with questions designed to flaunt his patriarchal wisdom and expose my youthful naiveté. In prophetic fashion, he would eventually declare that donors, as far as he was concerned, were meddling in our internal affairs. Eventually growing tired of this routine, I learned in time to nod, smile, and quietly pass the salad.

Today, a general suspicion of foreign funding is deeply entrenched in both Egyptian law and lore. Libel campaigns waged against externally funded civil society actors routinely employ cultural stigma to suggest that receiving foreign funds can alone be proof of infidelity. Countless local journalists have attacked institutions receiving grants from foreign donors, accusing them of operating as CIA informants. Using innuendo and sensationalist intrigue, they tend to discredit these institutions, surmising that their loyalties must lie with the Western agenda of infiltrating lo­ cal values and traditions.

The Egyptian state’s NGO law No. 84/2002 places restrictions on freedom of association and assembly, affording the state the right to disband NGOs at will, without due process, and impose punitive damages on those using foreign funds without attaining the state’s a priori approval. Neither the cultural stigma nor the legislation aims to deter foreign funding but rather to defame and undermine those out of favor with the powers that be.

The tensions born of foreign funding are perhaps most visible in Egypt’s arts and culture sector. Established in the 50s as the Ministry of National Guidance, Egypt’s Ministry of Culture (MOC) began operations in 1968 under state nationalist policies to subsidize artistic production and disseminate knowledge and culture to the public. Assuming the role of sole proprietor and guardian of Egyptian culture, MOC has since morphed into a decrepit bureaucratic monolith spewing prêt-a-porter molds of sanitized discourse and production. A political arm of the state in the guise of a cultural institution, MOC operates as a funding mechanism, policymaker, and programmer, commanding massive nationwide resources and purportedly drawing on the state’s second largest budget (runner up to the Ministry of Defense).

Today, MOC continues to expound hackneyed notions of high art and perpetuates a nationalist tradition harnessing artistic and cultural production for developmental, ethical, and, in recent years, touristic aims alone.

Eventually, artists and intellectuals who refused to operate under the ministry’s auspices formed their own networks, now loosely referred to as the independent arts sector. Its materialization has sparked a rift in Egypt’s arts scene, marring relations on either end of the spectrum. Insufficient local funding, weak educational resources, a dearth of production mechanisms, and the lack of exhibition venues have been some of the challenges historically dogging the growth and development of the independent arts sector. Still, over the past fifteen years, due largely to the onslaught of globalization and the creation of the EU, and expedited by a worldwide post-9/11 obsession with Arab culture, Egypt’s floundering independent arts sector, much like its civil society, has become the object of much donor attention and, eventually, support.

Assuming the role of cultural programmers more than donors, foreign cultural institutions such as the Goethe Institute, Pro Helvetia (of Switzerland), the British Council, and the French Cultural Center have increasingly organized festivals, exhibitions, lectures, and competitions, and in so doing have provided local artists with indirect production and exhibition opportunities. Working primarily under the umbrella of their respective foreign ministries, these institutions’ project-based support remains contingent on promoting their own respective cultural values and artistic productions. While some have grown to be more flexible and responsive to the independent sector, most of these institutions remain uninformed and uninterested in engaging with local partners in any critical dialogue, focusing more on achieving short-term goals than on promoting long-term change.

More substantial funding has come in via grants from private non-operating donors. The Ford Foundation’s Media Arts and Culture (MAC) program in the Middle East and North Africa has raised the profile of many indepen­dent arts groups by providing them with much-needed programmatic as well as institutional support. But assuming the role of a programmer often playing favorites and supporting specific projects deemed “representative” of the independent arts has earned Ford heavy criticism. The program’s irregular and seemingly inequitable funding patterns has fueled preexisting allegations of questionable foreign donor agendas. To this day, some of their grantees are accused of compromised integrity and are shunned, particularly by the official sector, for their foreign affiliations.

Whether precipitated by the new NGO law or lessons learned, MAC has shifted to a more structural approach focusing on issues of accountability, governance, and institutional development. However good its intentions, though, the program’s new approach has indirectly engendered a new malaise. Shying away from the NGO law and its debilitating implications, independent groups seeking foreign funding, from Ford or otherwise, place themselves in a duplicitous compromise by opting to register as commercial enterprises rather than nonprofit organizations.

As many independent groups rely heavily on donor funding, they tend to conform without much question in order to enlist continued support. This dependency, perhaps the most pressing of all issues facing the independent arts sector, hampers the growth of local sustainable solutions. In recent years there have been attempts to initiate local funding mechanisms. The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), a young but well-supported initiative, embraces an intrinsically Arab mandate specifically to tackle the ignominious association with foreign funding. Its unfortunate emphasis on providing support to the “independent” sector alone, however, may risk perpetuating the same long-standing rift between the official and unofficial arts sectors, which foreign fun­ ding itself has exacerbated for years. We can only hope that AFAC will be more inclusive.

Tales of the nefarious nature of international funding, the sort woven by my uncle, fail to engage with and influence funding strategies. They tend to perpetuate a victim syndrome that ignores the constituency’s own responsibility in advocating and lobbying for its own concerns. As an active part of civil society, artist groups and structures must organize internally and form coalitions to engage within a wider framework — that is, if they are to escape the commonly held perception of victimhood and, finally, dictate their own priorities.