Hosni’s UNESCO Loss

Egypt's controversial culture minister, Farouk Hosni, was expected to be the new UNESCO director-general, despite past comments about book-burning. What do Egyptians really think about this polarizing figure -- and his surprising defeat?


The tragicomedy of the UNESCO director-general elections has drawn to a close, with the narrow and dramatic defeat of the controversial candidate who dominated — and probably precipitated — much of the media coverage: Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian culture minister. The minister, who had been expected to win, lost to the Bulgarian ambassador to France, Irina Bokova, after five rounds of voting that included one perfect tie, intense backroom negotiations, and rumors of bribery. Hosni’s candidacy was badly damaged by allegations of anti-Semitism and by the Egyptian regime’s record of repression. Reactions to his loss have been decidedly mixed in his home country, ranging from disappointment to relief.

Hosni has always been a divisive figure in Egypt, one of the longest-serving ministers in President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime, a close friend of the first lady, and the proverbial holder of nine lives when it comes to weathering political scandals. In 2005, he survived a concerted revolt by much of the country’s cultural elite when a badly maintained government theater caught fire, killing 46 people. In 2006, he told a journalist that the hijab, or headscarf, was "a step backward" and was pilloried in the press and berated by members of parliament for insulting a Muslim custom.

The latest controversy the minister faced centered on remarks he made criticizing Israel. In a now infamous exchange, he was challenged by a member of parliament over the presence of Israeli books in the Alexandria library and retorted: "Burn these books; if there are any there I will myself burn them in front of you." This and other statements were highlighted in an open letter to Le Monde by filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, which stated: "Mr. Farouk Hosni is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue, and culture; Mr. Farouk Hosni is a dangerous man, an inciter of hearts and mind."

Hosni responded with a letter of his own, arguing, "I was expressing angry feelings at what is happening to an entire population [the Palestinians] deprived of its land and rights." Hosni said he regretted his words 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 full damage-control mode, his Culture Ministry also began highlighting initiatives meant to show how friendly it is to Jewish culture, such as plans to translate Israeli novels or renovations underway at some of Cairo’s synagogues.

The minister’s "book-burning" remark was widely deplored in Egypt, but the accusation of anti-Semitism was seen as politically motivated. Anger over Israel’s actions in the occupied territories is widespread here. Almost all Egyptian writers and artists have adhered to a cultural boycott of Israel ever since their government signed its peace agreement with the Jewish state in 1979, refusing to visit Israel or attend any events alongside Israelis until an equitable peace agreement with the Palestinians is reached. The charge that there are Israeli books in an Egyptian library is as shocking here as the minister’s response was abroad. The accusation of anti-Semitism in the West was considered payback for the cultural boycott, especially considering that many of Hosni’s critics are partisans of Israel and seem incapable or unwilling to recognize a difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Indeed, some Western reporters and commentators (including one writing for Foreign Policy) went so far as to make Hosni’s remark symptomatic of the "rampant Judeophobia" of all Egyptians. Yet what the "book-burning" exchange and its aftermath most exemplifies is the opportunism and disingenuousness that has characterized the minister’s long political career. Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany told me: "He says what is convenient, not what he thinks. I can respect someone whose opinion is different from mine. But I can’t respect someone whose opinion is never clear."

Yet despite the misgivings at home and abroad, Hosni’s candidacy seemed strong. Mubarak energetically supported his minister, persuading even Israel — as part of nebulous quid pro quo arrangements — not to voice any official opposition. Hosni would have been the first Arab to head UNESCO, and this fact alone helped garner the support of the African Union, the Arab League, and the Islamic Conference. Today, Egyptian newspapers almost unanimously explain Hosni’s defeat through the prism of identity politics and post-colonial power relations. "The clash of civilizations decided the electoral battle for the position of director-general of UNESCO," writes Fathiya Al Dakhakhni in Al-Masry Al-Youm. "The alliance of the Jewish lobby with the United States and Europe succeeded in bringing down the candidate of the South." Mohamed Salmawy, head of the Egyptian Writers’ Union, told the paper that Hosni’s defeat was "a big failure for the West, in the first testing of its claims to accept the Other, to accept a representative from the Islamic world."

But some have said all along that Hosni doesn’t represent Egyptians or Egyptian culture, the Arab world, or Islam. In May, Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the major pan-Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, argued that "Farouk Hosni doesn’t represent Egypt as much as he represents its regime, condemned by human rights organizations inside and outside of Egypt for its repression of freedom of speech. … Farouk Hosni’s victory won’t be a confirmation of Egypt’s cultural value as much as it will be a reward for a dictatorial regime, which treats its own people with intolerance."

Although Hosni presents himself abroad as a secular and liberal foe of fundamentalism, his record on freedom of expression is decidedly mixed. He has had frequent altercations with Islamists over works they viewed as "immoral," but has more often than not acquiesced to their demands — when not engaging in censorship on his own initiative. He is one of the most powerful ministers of a regime that does not respect or protect freedom of expression and that regularly persecutes journalists, bloggers, and writers. And he has shown a personal intolerance of dissent, making his attendance at a literary festival in Toulouse, France, this summer conditional on rescinding the invitation of writer Sonallah Ibrahim. (Ibrahim is a consistent critic of the Mubarak regime. He embarrassed the authorities when in 2003 — standing on a stage alongside Hosni — he refused a literary prize "because it is from a government that, in my opinion, does not possess the credibility to grant it.")

The guiding light of Hosni’s career has been loyalty to the regime and political expediency. He got his start, after all, working as a cultural attaché at the Egyptian Embassy in Paris and — according to an article on Arabic-language Web site Elaph — spying on Egyptian students for the intelligence services. His tenure has seen the establishment of a number of good museums, valuable restoration projects, and international cultural festivals, but it has also been characterized by corruption, cronyism, and a concerted effort to intimidate and co-opt Egypt’s artists and intellectuals. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the Egyptian opposition daily Al Dustour, writes in a column on Hosni’s defeat: "The man is the minister of culture in an era when the only culture allowed is the culture of money and making profits, of loyalty and obedience, of aversion to thought."

Egyptian bloggers — the frequent targets of government persecution — have been particularly vocal in opposing Hosni’s nomination and rejoicing over his defeat. At her blog Egyptian Chronicles, blogger Zeinobia has been following the issue assiduously, accusing the minister of "stealing and trading in our historical heritage" and writing, "Of course we [bloggers] have been attacked in the official press as if it were from patriotism and the love of Egypt to say Yes for Farouk Hosni, well it is because we are patriots and we are madly in love with Egypt, we say No to Farouk Hosni."

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