x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

I'm near suicide, says Egyptian minister after painting theft

Since the theft of a Van Gogh painting, the culture minister Farouk Hosni has become the favourite target of politicians and the media demanding his sacking or resignation.

'It's unbelievable the frenzy in the media' over the Van Gogh theft, says the Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni.
'It's unbelievable the frenzy in the media' over the Van Gogh theft, says the Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni.

CAIRO // Since the theft of a Van Gogh painting from a Cairo museum, Egypt's culture minister, Farouk Hosni, has become the favourite target of politicians and the media demanding his sacking or resignation. Now, he wishes the misery would just end. "I would welcome if I'm fired, as it will protect me from more catastrophes to come. It would be my salvation," Mr Hosni said in an interview at his office in Zamalek on Wednesday.

Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, the prosecutor general, announced this week that only seven of the museum's 43 security cameras and none of the building's alarms were functioning at the time of the robbery of the $55 million (Dh202m) Poppy Flowers painting in a brazen daytime heist at the Mahmoud Khalil Museum. After the robbery on Saturday, Mr Hosni suspended Mohsen Shaalan, the director of the ministry's fine arts sector, and 13 others until police conclude their investigation.

Mr Shaalan has said he was a "scapegoat" for the ministry. Mr Hosni, meanwhile, defended himself on Wednesday. "Nobody should imagine that I knew that the security cameras were not functioning, because had I known that I would have ordered the museum closed immediately," he said. "It's unbelievable the frenzy in the media - dreadful hunger for accusations. They are leaving or defending the defendant [Mr Shaalan] and running after the non-accused. Why? Because of my name as a minister."

Mr Hosni has taken a beating in the media. The columnist Sekina Fouad of the opposition daily Dostorsaid, "The whole cabinet should be sacked because the theft of the painting is a big scandal by a government that claims it's protecting Egyptian treasures". "The media is dealing with me like a cow which fell, and many knifes are ready to slaughter it, but I'm neither a cow, nor did I fall," Mr Hosni said.

He said Wednesday that Mr Shaalan had asked for 40 million pounds (Dh25.7m) for security measures for 15 museums, but Mahmoud Khalil wasn't one of them. Also, the minister showed The National documents that indicated the ministry has distributed more than 29m pounds for the development and restoration of Mahmoud Khalil Museum and another museum since February 2009, but that Mr Shaalan had not used any of the money to renovate or repair the security cameras and alarms.

Mr Shaalan, who is in custody, was quoted Wednesday as saying he had told Mr Hosni about the problems with the cameras and alarms, and the minister had told him there was no money specifically available for them. Mr Hosni said he has formed a committee to review security measures after the Van Gogh theft. "The scandal is not in the loss of the painting, but in how it was stolen," he said. "France lost a few paintings by Picasso a few months ago, so did Italy, America and Japan."

The robbers stood on a couch and cut the Van Gogh painting out of its frame as the guards were believed to have gone for noon prayers. Mr Hosni, 72, a painter, has been in office since 1987, making him the longest-serving minister in the cabinet and no stranger to controversy. He said he has been a part of "catastrophes that make him on the verge of suicide". The most infamous incident happened five years ago when a fire erupted at an amateur performance in a government theatre in Beni Suef. Forty-six people died in the blaze and ensuing stampede. It turned out that fire extinguishers had been locked in a far-off room.

Mr Hosni said he hopes Poppy Flowers, which was lost in the late 1970s and was recovered a few years later, would be found again. "We informed the Interpol and galleries about its theft, so the painting has become an announced and well-defined crime, so moving with it would be like a murderer moving with his weapon which is dripping with blood." Local media reported on Thursday that an Egyptian billionaire, Naguib Sawiris, has offered a reward of one million Egyptian pounds for anyone who provides information that leads to the recovery of the stolen painting.