With his bid to become the director general of Unesco, the Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosini has caused another in a string of controversies.
With his bid to become the director general of Unesco, Egypt's minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, has caused another in a string of controversies among the country's artistic establishment. Ursula Lindsey explains Farouk Hosni works out of a small whitewashed 19th-century palace in Zamalek, a chic central Cairo neighbourhood on an island in the Nile. His offices are decorated with contemporary art (he is himself a painter) and beautifully restored old furniture. He is dapper and amiable, fluent in English but most comfortable in French. Egypt's minister of culture is also one of the most resilient, powerful and divisive figures in Egyptian politics. His contentious candidature to be the next head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) is the latest in a series of controversies to gain the attention of Egyptian artists and literati - not least because it raises the -issue of Egypt's cultural relations (or pointed lack thereof) with Israel. Unesco was founded in 1945; its stated mission is to "build peace in the minds of men" by raising education levels and supporting cultural and intellectual exchange between its member states. Its 193 member states will elect a new director -general on September 18. Hosni's campaign to head the institution was proceeding smoothly until the French daily Le Monde published an open letter on May 21, penned by the editor of Temps Modernes, Claude Lanzmann; the well-known French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, and the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. The letter quotes Hosni as saying that "Israel has never contributed to civilisation in any era, for it has only ever appropriated the contributions of others", and that Israel has been helped by "the infiltration of Jews into the international media". The letter also references an exchange that took place between Hosni and an Egyptian member of parliament last year, in which the MP claimed there were Israeli books in the -Alexandria Library. Hosni reportedly countered: "Burn those books; if there are any there I will myself burn them in front of you." The letter argued that "Mr Farouk Hosny is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue, and culture; Mr Farouk Hosny is a dangerous man, an inciter of hearts and minds". It called on "all countries dedicated to liberty and culture to take the initiatives necessary to avert this threat and avoid the disaster that would be his nomination". Hosni responded with a letter of his own, in which he argued: "I was expressing angry feelings at what is happening to an entire population of Palestinians deprived of its land and rights. Although the words themselves are charged with extreme cruelty, they should be seen in context." Hosni wrote that he regretted what he'd said and that "nothing is more abhorrent to me than racism, rejection of the other or a desire to discredit any human culture, including the Jewish culture". In an interview with The National, Hosni presented his remark as an unfortunate rhetorical exaggeration, made under pressure from a hostile Islamist MP. "It was really torn out of its context. I didn't say exactly what was written in the newspapers. The MP said: 'There are Israeli books that insult Islam in the libraries of the ministry.' I insisted there weren't. He insisted there were. I said: 'OK, show me this book and I'll burn it in front of you.' Someone took half of what was said and put it in the newspapers: -Farouk Hosni is going to burn Israeli books. This is crazy. "I apologised for them misunderstanding me," he said. "I never had the intention of burning anything. I have a library at home full of books, even Hebrew books. If I was planning on burning Jewish books, then why do I restore all the synagogues? I apologised despite the fact that I never really thought of doing this." Hosni was born in Alexandria in 1938. He graduated from -Alexandria University's School of Fine Arts and, after serving as cultural attaché at the Egyptian Embassy in Paris and as director of the Egyptian Academy of Arts in Rome, became minister of culture in 1987. Today he is the longest-serving minister in the Egyptian government, overseeing a ministry with 100,000 employees and responsibility for all of Egypt's abundant and diverse antiquities. The ministry's work to safeguard and highlight these antiquities is the accomplishment of which -Hosni is most proud. He mentions the 10-year restoration of the sphinx as well as the extensive recent renovations along the medieval Islamic street of Al-Mu'izz li Din Illah. The minister also proudly points to the establishment of the new Alexandria Library and of a number of regional museums - the Alexandria National Museum, the Nubia Museum in Aswan, and the new Grand Museum of Egypt to be built on the Giza plateau - as well as to the creation of a number of international cultural festivals featuring theatre, dance and short and documentary films. Even Hosni's critics admit that he has undertaken valuable restorations. But they argue that many of his other initiatives are mere window-dressing , and that his Ministry has operated according to political interests rather than cultural ones. In a recent column in Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, the Sudanese intellectual Abdel Wahab Al Effendi wrote: "In a dictatorship, the role of the Minister of Culture isn't to protect culture, but to stifle it to protect the regime." Today, Egyptian cultural life is widely seen as suffering from the same stagnation as its political system. Many lament the 1950s and 1960s, the glory days of Egyptian cultural production, when Egyptian cinema produced classics on a par with Italian neorealist film, and Egyptian singers and writers were admired across the region. Hosni sees it differently. Egypt -today is "in ferment, culturally". He dismisses comparisons between the past and the present - between Umm Kulthum and Amr Diab, say, or the black and white classics of Salah Abu Seif and the lowbrow comedies of today - saying: "We have to accept modern culture, we can't always look backwards. We have to live in our own time, not in the past." The ministry of culture oversees 18 different institutions and has ample means at its disposal (it finances itself through admissions to Egypt's antiquities and museums). Hosni couldn't specify the ministry's -operating budget but one of his advisers said it was "beyond billions" of Egyptian pounds. These resources, the minister's critics charge, are partly used to co-opt the cultural establishment. Discuss Hosni with almost any intellectual in Egypt, and sooner or later a comment he made about his success in "putting intellectuals in the pen of the ministry of culture" will come up. The remark has been widely understood as showing that the minister's true mission is to control the cultural establishment to the benefit of President Hosni Mubarak's regime, to which many writers and artists stand in opposition. (The minister used the Arabic word hatheera, but he says he was misunderstood: "When I talked about a pen, I wasn't talking about a chicken pen. What I said exactly is: we are all in the pen of culture. It's a literary expression from two Ahmad Shawqi poems.") As head of the Supreme Council for Culture, Hosni oversees the granting of large monetary prizes every year. It is a constant source of contention. But he says: "I have one vote. It's real democracy. I don't care if someone says: 'Why did this person win, why did that person not win?'" Many writers' and artists' resentment towards Hosni came to a head in 2005, when a fire erupted at an amateur theatrical performance in a government theatre in Beni Suef. Forty-six people died in the blaze and ensuing stampede (fire extinguishers turned out to have been locked in a far-off room). Writers and artists held demonstrations calling for Hosni's resignation. They wrote editorial after editorial blaming the minister for the unsafe conditions at Beni Suef's cultural palace and implying that corruption and nepotism had misdirected funds that should have been -dedicated to its upkeep. Hosni -tendered his -resignation, but -President Mubarak immediately reinstated him; several lower-level -employees were -eventually prosecuted and sentenced to prison. Hosni has also become the bête noire of Egyptian Islamists, who have repeatedly clashed with the ministry of culture over the publication of books they have deemed morally offensive. In 2006, Hosni told a journalist that the hijab was unbecoming and "a step backwards for Egyptian women". This led to a media furore. During a session of the People's Assembly, 130 members (including members of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of Hosni's own National Democratic Party) -attacked the minister. One MP became so agitated during his condemnation that he reportedly fainted from rage. "Fundamentalists and Islamists are always against me. And culture," Hosni says. The hijab controversy was "an enormous conflict between myself and the parliament. But I insisted on my point of view, my opinion", which, he says, is that the hijab should not be imposed on young girls. Hosni's struggles with religious groups won him grudging respect from those same Egyptian artists and intellectuals who had called for his resignation. And his Unesco candidature is also being supported in some unlikely quarters. Gamal al Ghitany, the novelist and editor of the literary journal Akhbar Al Adab, describes himself as one of the minister's "strongest opponents". (The minister has described the magazine and its coverage of his policies as "sadistic and pathetic".) Al Ghitany says: "Those who wrote in Le Monde were upset and they had every right. When the minister of culture of the biggest Arab country says he'll burn books, this is outrageous." But, he says, Hosni "said it when confronted by the Muslim Brotherhood. They besieged him and embarrassed him. He didn't -really mean it". The opposition to Hosni's candidature is seen in Cairo as Israel-backed (although the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has withdrawn his objection). The matter has become coloured with nationalism and anti-Zionism. "Because the Egyptian government nominated him, I hope he gets the position," says al Ghitany. "It's complicated," says Mohammed Heshim, the head of the publishing house Merit and a leader of the campaign against Hosni in the wake of the Beni Suef fire. "I'm his enemy. But I won't stand against him in this matter. They're insulting him because he's Egyptian. They don't want anyone Egyptian or Arab to win." Ironically, while Hosni comes -under attack abroad for anti-Semitism, many Egyptian artists and writers worry that the minister, in his bid for the Unesco position, may be compromising too much. A cultural boycott of Israel has been in place since the late 1970s, when Egyptian artists and intellectuals, in a show of defiance against President Anwar Sadat's decision to make peace with the Jewish state, committed to have no contact with their Israeli counterparts. Many in Egyptian cultural circles have been up in arms over what they see as signs that the ministry of culture is moving towards -normalisation. These include -Daniel -Barenboim's conducting of the -Cairo Opera this year; the news that the ministry of culture is planning to translate a few novels from -Hebrew; and rumours (since quashed) that Israelis might participate in the Red Sea Festival. Hosni says his position in this -regard has never changed. "Normalisation isn't a decision of the minister. It's a global, collective -decision on the part of all intellectuals and creators. I personally am not against cultural normalisation. I'm against choosing the current time to start. It has to be after the establishment of peace between Israel and Palestine. If there is a peace signed between the two countries, no problems, we'll all start. I will be the first, after the signing of a peace." Of course, he notes, at Unesco he would be representing a different constituency and enacting different policies. "It's a completely different vision. I'll be the director general of Unesco. Unesco belongs to the whole world, not to the Arab world or to Egypt. I have to be completely fair and transparent towards -everyone. I'll have the opportunity to -establish a 'thought peace' between Egyptian and Israeli intellectuals. It's a neutral platform." Meanwhile, the cultural boycott of Israel is once again the topic du jour in Egyptian cultural circles. Some remain adamantly opposed to any concessions. "If they want to normalise, they're going to need other writers, other poets, artists and other people altogether - people who don't watch the news and see what's being done to the Palestinians every day," says Heshim. Al Ghitany, on the other hand, thinks it's time to reassess the way the boycott is implemented. "We need to discuss normalisation again. Our position has become unclear," he says. "There is something like a Palestinian country in -Ramallah and Gaza. What is the -position of Arab intellectuals -towards travel to these regions? What about dealing with Arab Israelis?" If Hosni loses the Unesco election and remains minister, this summer's heated discussion of cultural normalisation will be added to the long list of controversies he's been at the centre of. If he leaves to head the UN organisation, Hosni believes he will be particularly well suited to orchestrate new forms of cultural dialogue. "Someone like me will build -extraordinary bridges, luminous bridges between the East and the West," he says. "I'll be the remedy to the questions that concern the -Middle East and Europe." Some in the Egyptian cultural -establishment have their own motivations for wishing him well in his Unesco bid. "I'll be happy if the minister wins, for two reasons," says the poet Ibrahim Daoud. "An Egyptian will have won, and he'll no longer be our minister."