Egypt cultural production goes online to circumvent virus constraints

A free online channel airs diverse cultural shows, including theatrical plays, music concerts, short films, feature films and documentaries.

CAIRO --The Egyptian Ministry of Culture has established a YouTube channel to provide a wide range of cultural materials to encourage Egyptians to stay home to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

The free channel airs diverse cultural shows, including theatrical plays, music concerts, short films, feature films and documentaries.

“Most of the works broadcast on the channel are Egyptian cultural masterpieces,” Egyptian Minister of Culture Enas Abdel Dayem said. “They demonstrate the uniqueness of Egypt’s soft power.”

The channel falls within the ministry’s “Culture Is in Your Hands… Stay at Home” initiative, which strives to convince Egyptians to stay home during the outbreak.

Cairo suspended flights, shuttered schools and universities, closed shopping malls and restaurants, mosques and churches but some Egyptians panicked as the disease spread.

More than 500 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 30 have died from the disease in Egypt. Authorities fear the disease could become uncontrollable with infected patients swarming ill-equipped hospitals.

At a meeting with a group of Egyptian mothers on March 22, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in his first public appearance since the outbreak reached Egypt, described COVID-19 as the most dangerous crisis that faced the country.

Sisi appealed to people to stay home and distance themselves from other people for two weeks. “This will help us curb the disease and limit contagion,” he said.

The initiative by the Ministry of Culture is more than just a YouTube channel. The ministry has uploaded books and publications to its website, offering free access. The ministry said it would do everything possible to help the public access national cultural output at home.

“The channel is one of several measures we will take to encourage culture lovers to stay at home,” said ministry spokesman Mohamed Muneer. “It will air a rich treat of cultural materials.”

Egypt suspended all cultural activities to contain the COVID-19 outbreak. Cinemas were closed and theatres shut their doors. Egypt also stopped receiving cultural delegates from other countries.

Everybody is trying to adapt to this cultural slump. Some musical groups are going online to reach fans and encourage them to stay at home. Bookstores are setting up websites and Facebook pages to reach customers while offering home delivery of books.

“COVID-19 is opening the door for massive changes on the cultural scene,” said Haitham al-Hajj, chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, the Egyptian state book publishing agency. “All cultural institutions are using the internet to connect with their audiences and adapt to the restrictions imposed on the cultural scene by the disease.”

However, not everybody is able to adapt. TV producers, who had been racing to complete dramas to be broadcast during Ramadan have been reluctant to suspend work, citing potential financial losses.

“The problem is that nobody knows when things will come back to normal,” said cinema and TV critic Tarek al-Shenawi. “Few producers are ready to take the risk and suspend their works.”

Thousands of people involved in TV productions, including actors, chorus members, cameramen, directors, costume and make-up artists, risk income loss.

Despite concerns about virus infection, many cannot afford losing contracts they have signed with producers.

“We have children to protect and going to work puts us in danger but, unfortunately, we cannot stay home,” said an actor who asked to remain anonymous.

On March 14, the Actors’ Association appealed to producers to defer filming of scenes that require a large number of people and to avoid travelling between cities to film scenes.

“Producers can only abide by these rules but they cannot suspend their works completely,” association head Ashraf Zaki, said. “This is especially true because of uncertainty on when the COVID-19 emergency will come to an end.”

Ahmed Meghid is an Egyptian reporter based in Cairo.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.