- What has been the effect of the Arab uprisings on artists in Egypt and other countries in the region?
- What challenges do regional artists face in funding and disseminating their work?
- What role does the U.S. government have in promoting and supporting artists in the region, particularly those who are attempting to influence political debate in ways that advance tolerance and freedom?
- What programs have been established by nongovernmental organizations to engage and support Arab artists?
- What core principles should be applied when building sustainable programming to support the arts in the Middle East?
After decades of authoritarianism, a wave of political change and unrest began to sweep across the Middle East and North Africa in early 2011. Successful democratic transitions will not be easy and will require change in multiple spheres. This report focuses on one sphere whose power and importance is often underestimated: the artistic arena. Regional artists have the potential to positively contribute to democratic transition by shaping public debate in ways that support tolerance and nonviolence. But Arab artists are often squeezed between the bounds of acceptable discourse, set by rulers who fear freedom of expression and conservative societal groups that seek to control acceptable behavior. Although the Arab uprisings lifted some previous barriers to artistic expression, new limitations and challenges have emerged. Moreover, artists continue to lack sound funding models to support their work and face limited markets and distribution mechanisms. This research explores the challenges posed by both the state and society in the region, as well as the policy shifts that may be necessary to better support regional artists. It also suggests new strategies in which regional actors and nongovernmental organizations take leading roles in supporting these artists and their work.
The Arab Uprisings Lifted Some Restrictions in the Cultural Sphere but Have Also Introduced a New Set of Challenges
- A review of Egypt's cultural and political environment after the January 25, 2011, revolution indicates that red lines have been erased on a number of topics previously considered off limits.
- On the other hand, little has changed in the legal and bureaucratic framework used to make censorship decisions. In addition, artists continue to face organized campaigns against them if they fail to adhere to certain conservative values.
- Egypt's new political authorities have sent mixed signals regarding their positions on artistic freedom. They have allowed greater freedom in discussions of political topics while at the same time bowing to pressure from more conservative groups to rein in artistic work seen as countering social values.
Large Gaps Continue to Plague U.S. Government Efforts in the Cultural Sphere
- Both the Bush and Obama administrations have recognized the importance of enhancing outreach and the impact of Arab voices advocating for tolerance and nonviolence in the Middle East.
- U.S. government efforts to promote artistic expression have not been significantly affected by the Arab uprisings. Programs continue to focus on promoting a positive view of U.S. cultural norms, with less emphasis on supporting regional arts.
- Support for regional artists is scattered throughout the U.S. government, with a lack of strategic focus and organization.
- Ultimately, nongovernmental actors and public-private partnerships will need to take the lead in providing effective support to regional artists.
Recommendations for U.S. Government Efforts
- Balance the current focus of public diplomacy and programs that promote U.S. culture within the Middle East, with some recognition that support for regional artists is also an important objective.
- Focus on helping the region's artists and institutions make the creative industries a source of growth and employment.
- Make more-vocal efforts to include cultural freedom as a critical component of promoting reform and countering extremism across the region. Provide training programs for lawyers, policymakers, and politicians on the importance of allowing and protecting freedom of expression.
- Prioritize support for nongovernmental efforts to promote cultural expression.
Recommendations for Nongovernmental Efforts
- Encourage market-based companies that help distribute and fund work by regional artists.
- Develop local boards to assist in identifying the challenges artists face in creating and distributing their work. Connect these local boards with partners in the West who have the expertise to help artists overcome these challenges.
- Facilitate exchanges between regional artists and organizers of established international arts festivals. The exchanges should be designed to help artists gain the practical skills necessary to organize regional arts festivals that raise the profile of their work and attract tourism revenue.
- Develop metrics for nongovernmental organizations engaged in regional training (e.g., in media or film production) to determine the success of trainees in maintaining jobs in their fields.
- Increase partnerships between public and private institutions working in the Middle East art arena to strengthen the efforts of each.
This research was sponsored by the Smith Richardson Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).
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