The Muslim Brotherhood's assault on the arts

The showdown at the Opera is part of an ongoing saga unfolding in Egypt as opposition to the policies of Morsi’s Islamist-dominated government grows increasingly pronounced. Late last year, a committee made up almost entirely of Morsi-loyalists hastily drafted a new constitution — the first since Egyptians toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 — and passed it amid a massive outcry from citizens who say that the oppressive policies of the Mubarak regime are alive and well.

Similar concerns have been raised over threats to sectors ranging from education to media. Some Egyptian scholars cite potential pitfalls buried in the new constitution that call upon the state to “safeguard the cultural and linguistic constituents of society and foster the Arabization of education, science, and knowledge.” While those promoting more conservative ideologies stress the importance of the Arabic language for cultural preservation, many argue that eliminating English education from concentrations like medicine and engineering threatens to cast Egyptian students behind their global counterparts.

However, any perceived attack on the art scene in Egypt strikes at a certain sentimentality shared not only by its citizens, but by people across the Arab world. Long before Egyptians ever knew of a man named Hosni Mubarak — the country once known for the pyramids and the Nile had reinvented itself at the turn of the century as a center for modern art, cultural and fashion. It produced pan-Arab musical icons like Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez, and composer Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Authors Naguib Mahfouz and Taha Hussein had their books translated into several languages — the former was a Nobel laureate. Bibliotheca Alexandria, erected in 2002, has become a global center for learning and education, embracing the historical past of the Mediterranean port city.