Several national bodies are involved in implementing the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage: (1) the Supreme Council of Culture, within the Ministry of Culture, drafts regulations and defines policy and programmes for intangible cultural heritage; it has a dedicated Committee of Folklore and intangible cultural heritage; (2) the Archives of Folk Life and Folk Traditions, also under the Ministry of Culture, collects and documents Egypt’s traditional culture; (3) the Centre for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage (CULTNAT), affiliated with the Ministry of Communication and Information, collects data on intangible cultural heritage and provides training in different aspects of the safeguarding of intangible cultural heritage; and (4) the Centre for Studies of Folk Arts of the Egypt Arts Academy also collects data and operates a museum. Finally, a non-governmental organization, the Egyptian Society for Folk Culture (ESFC), promotes intangible cultural heritage safeguarding in various spheres.
Of these agencies, three are identified as having a training function: the Archives of Folk Life and Folk Traditions; CULTNAT; and the Egyptian Society for Folk Culture. The system relies heavily on the support of university specialists and non-specialists with an interest in intangible cultural heritage or a particular element thereof.
The most developed area thus far is documentation. In this area, the same three agencies have operated training programmes for those collecting and documenting intangible cultural heritage. This includes training on using digital data base systems and audio-visual means of documentation. This process has contributed to strengthening the capacity of young researchers to collect data related to intangible cultural heritage which is comparable with that collected in other nations. Members from the cultural communities with particular expertise in this area have also participated in the collection process after attending the training sessions.
The process of inventorying intangible cultural heritage in Egypt is based on the collections of the Archives of Folk Life and Folk Tradition, which was established in 2008 to collect and document the traditional culture of Egypt. Its primary role as an archive is to collect data and make them available to individuals and institutions. It is a service unit of the Ministry of Culture and depends on grants and research commissioned by different agencies and individuals for its financing. The methodology followed is to collect the intangible cultural heritage element directly from the bearers themselves in their homes or their places of performance. The element is then documented using a digital data base including photographs, videos, and recorded interviews with the bearers. The Archives has employed interviewers from the local communities in the data collection process. This approach also has an educational value for students and recent graduates who can acquire valuable data collection and documentation skills. This will contribute to building a cadre of skilled intangible cultural heritage professionals for the future. The information collated is continuously updated through spot checks with bearers interviewed in order to update any changes.
A complementary data-gathering exercise is the project supported by the Industrial Modernization Centre of the Ministry of Industry, which commissioned the ESFT to document the traditional crafts of Egypt and collect the related intangible aspects and the traditional knowledge of these crafts. In this context, 364 crafts were documented and the related information is now also stored in the Archives. This has formed the basis for a programme to develop the production and distribution of traditional craft products.
An important measure for promoting the social function of intangible cultural heritage is the recent development of a Syndicate of Folk Creators. This is an initiative of members of the ESFT and was established with the objective of fostering coordination between scholars and other interested individuals and active tradition bearers in a single institutional context. Its main objective is to support the rights of intangible cultural heritage bearers and practitioners, ensure decent living conditions and provide them with medical insurance. Although it is still in its infancy, 500 members have joined the syndicate and paid the registration fees, which is evidence of its success and importance. Four committees, each comprising one academic and three traditional bearers and representing one of four domains of intangible cultural heritage (oral traditions, craftsmanship, performing arts and social practices and knowledge), have begun to set its programme.
As for measures to integrate safeguarding intangible cultural heritage into planning or development programmes, the ESFT monitors handicraft production as one aspect of Egypt’s intangible cultural heritage. Moreover, local cultural industries and state bodies recognize the economic potential of elements of intangible cultural heritage and these are beginning to be incorporated into development programmes. For example, the Industrial Modernization Centre used the results of the aforementioned survey of traditional crafts and held a workshop with Italian designers and Egyptian craftspeople to consider incorporating traditional elements of culture into various products and expanding their production and distribution.
As far as educational and/or training programmes within the communities and groups are concerned, the National Council for Women commissioned ESFT and the Archives to help them to document the art of tally (embroidery with metallic threads) and train women from Upper Egypt to safeguard this art. Over three hundred women attended the first training programme, which was followed by a further one. This programme has revitalized an art that was near extinction.
The ESFT is active in bilateral, sub-regional, regional and international cooperation. For instance, it has participated, along with other Mediterranean states, in the Project of the Sun Festival for which a moulid celebration was performed with the participation of community members and local specialists. In this festival, a workshop was held with representatives of the different Mediterranean States in which they exchanged information and experiences on their festivals with each other and members of the public.
Egypt has one element on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity: Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah epic (incorporated in 2008 after having been proclaimed a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2003). Since inscription, the number of Sirah performances and local narrators has not greatly increased but, importantly, awareness of the Sirah among young people is growing. The element continues to be performed in rural areas in prose, poetry and song forms but is now seldom heard in urban centres, except insofar as it is featured in state ceremonies for important international visitors. The epic has also been incorporated into performances for tourists, bringing it to an international audience.