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Originally published Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at 1:08 PM

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The new drama at Egypt's opera: A political fight

The Cairo Opera House has become a new battleground between supporters and opponents of Egypt's Islamist president, this time fighting over the direction of the Middle East's oldest music institution.

Associated Press

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CAIRO —

The Cairo Opera House has become a new battleground between supporters and opponents of Egypt's Islamist president, this time fighting over the direction of the Middle East's oldest music institution.

The new culture minister fired the head of the opera house, part of a shakeup he said is aimed at injecting "new blood" across art and culture programs he says were stagnant and corrupt.

But staffers are refusing any other boss to replace Enas Abdel-Dayem. Tuesday night, they protested outside her office, accusing the minister of bending to pressure from Islamists, and some held a sit in overnight to prevent any replacement from entering.

Staffers have also closed the curtain on all performances. For the first time in the opera house's history, the opera Aida - composed by Giuseppe Verdi and debuted to the world in 1871 in Cairo- was cancelled in protest. Singers instead held up posters on stage that said, "No to Brotherhoodization."

"In a stand against a detailed plan to destroy culture and fine arts in Egypt we decided as artists and management to abstain from performing tonight's Opera Aida," conductor Nayer Nagi announced from the stage Tuesday evening. He vowed the halt would go on until the culture minister, Alaa Abdel-Aziz, is removed.

The row has opened a new front in the politically divided country, with performing artists joining a chorus of others who say they are fighting attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist allies of President Mohammed Morsi to impose their control.

Other battles have raged in the judiciary, the education ministry, the agriculture ministry, and the media. Protests have erupted over fears that the Brotherhood has also tried to control the police and the Sunni world's pre-eminent seat of learning, Al-Azhar in Cairo.

The Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, denies trying to monopolize power for itself or other Islamists. But the confrontation illustrates an entrenched problem in reform since autocrat Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011 and Islamists rose to power: Many want to see change and reform in government institutions, but some also don't trust the Morsi and the Brotherhood to do it, fearing they will impose a conservative religious agenda that disregards other viewpoints.

In the case of the Opera House, those fears were fueled by comments by an ultraconservative lawmaker in parliament this week. Nour Party member Gamal Hamid called for the abolition of ballet performances in Egypt - which are usually held at the opera house - describing it as "immoral" and "nude art".

So far, the culture minister, a professor in film editing who was appointed in a cabinet reshuffle three weeks ago, has not made any attempts to impose any overtly Islamist restrictions on the arts. But his opponents in the ministry fear his shakeup of staff aims to eventually do so.

The minister did not respond to calls by The Associated Press seeking comment on Abdel-Dayem's removal.

But Abdel-Aziz has said he is trying to clean up the ministry, which is in charge of arts and culture programs, museums and performing arts, after years of stagnation and corruption under Mubarak. Already, he has removed the head of the state book agency and the head of the fine arts department.

Speaking to the privately-owned Mehwar TV station after his appointment, Abdel-Aziz said the ministry needs to be overhauled. "Being a statesman is not easy. You have to work and achieve and make the most out of the months you are working, "he said. "The culture ministry is in shambles."

Abdel-Dayem, who was appointed about 15 months ago, several months before Morsi's election, said she was given no reason for her removal. Though told to vacate her office in 24 hours, Abdel-Dayem returned on Wednesday.

Smoking a slim cigarette, she spoke to the AP in her office late Tuesday as dozens of her supporters held their sit-in outside.

"There is a particular policy he's using to eradicate Egyptian identity and culture," she said of the new culture minister.

"He is coming in crashing head-on," Abdel-Dayem said. "Before he even knows what these agencies do, he immediately started requesting to cut down on fine arts activities."

Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, has historically been a cultural powerhouse in the region. Its black and white films from the 1950s and 1960s are still popular across the Middle East and Egyptian singers such as Umm Kalthoum and Abdel-Halim Hafez are household names and remain radio favorites.

The first opera house in the region was built under Khedive Ismail in Cairo in 1869 to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. A century later, the building was destroyed in a fire. Its new incarnation, the Cairo Opera House, was inaugurated in 1988 under Mubarak.

The Opera House staff has so far stood in solidarity with Abdel-Dayem.

Opera singer Reda Wakil announced that the culture minister approached him to replace her but he refused and said the move was aimed at dividing artists. Members of the opera say the minister then turned to a stage craft engineer. The ministry has not commented on a next-in-line.

Composer and pianist Omar Khairat, who has played in sold-out performances across the world, also cancelled his show at the opera house in solidarity.

Nagi, the conductor, told The Associated Press the decision to fire Abdel-Dayem is "weak and stupid". He accused the Brotherhood of being behind the move.

Brotherhood spokesman Ashraf Badr-Eddin dismissed the allegations as "baseless".

"Why don't they tell us who from the Brotherhood was hired? Did we stop the ballet and replace it with an Islamic performance?" he said.

Abdel-Aziz, who was little known in Egypt's tight-knit world of artists, is not a Brotherhood member, though he has at times seemed sympathetic with its agenda.

In an interview with the Muslim Brotherhood's website soon after his appointment, he responded to accusations that his appointment meant that Islamists are attempting to stifle performances.

"This talk of `Islamizing culture' is a strange expression, as if it is a slur or a charge," he said. "The majority of Egyptians practice Islam." He decried what he called a "monopoly" by some intellectuals on the fine art scene in Egypt.

He also wrote a column in the Brotherhood-affiliated party's newspaper in January, criticizing the opposition for its stances against Morsi.

Still, some artists say the effect of rising Islamist influence is being felt since Mubarak's fall.

The artistic director of the nearly 60 year-old Cairo Ballet Company said she was told by the Opera House's management last year that a perennial show it held - Tango and Bolero dances - were too erotic and will not be held this year after audience complaints.

"Bolero was presented in the opening of the (new) Cairo Opera House and I, myself, was dancing," Erminya Kamel said. "Twenty-five years ago it was presented as one of the best performances, and now it is being criticized."

A longtime harp player for the opera, Manal Mohyieddin, says the situation in the ministry is an "embarrassment" for Egypt.

"This is not just about the Opera House. We are talking about a nation that is being occupied by a political trend that calls itself Islamic, but does it has nothing to do with Islam and does not represent Islam," she said.

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