By Khaled Diab
Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny's bid to be the chief of the UN's cultural wing has aroused suspicion among liberals and conservatives alike.
15 September 2009
Home to arguably the most famous world heritage sites and as the Arab world's cultural centre of gravity, Egypt should be a ripe recruiting ground for UNESCO's next chief. But Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosny's bid to take over the reins of the UN's cultural and educational arm has stirred up controversy both within and outside Egypt.
Faced with failing popularity at home, Hosny engaged in offensive grandstanding and opportunistic populism last year when he made the shocking claim, for a man supposedly of culture, that if it were in his power, he would burn all Israeli books in Egypt, provoking the ire of Israel and of Jews around the world, although Israel withdrew its opposition to his candidature.
At home, Egyptians are divided over his candidacy. Many are outraged by the prospect that one of President Hosni Mubarak's most trusted minions and his longest-serving minister – not to mention the first lady's favourite – might actually become the face of global culture, education and science.
But Hosny is only Egypt's culture minister. Surely, he can't be held responsible for the regime's excesses, some may protest. But even if he is not directly implicated in the government's abuses, he does employ his talents as an abstract artist to obscure and mask the ugly face of the regime with some desperately needed prestige. In fact, media reports suggest that Mubarak regards the whole UNESCO issue as a matter of pride for his government.
More murkily, Hosny does his part to limit press freedom and freedom of expression both for political and personal reasons – one Egyptian blogger even described him as a “diva” for blacklisting artists who refused to accept awards from the ministry.
“Farouk Hosny and the first lady are the examples I despise the most,” my brother Osama fumed in no uncertain terms. “People whose jobs are to improve the image of an oppressive regime by bringing operas by Verdi to Luxor and the Pyramids and [who] pretend to promote books and reading, while reading and knowledge, in reality, are the things the regime fears the most.”
“I wish he wins,” one Egyptian joked on Facebook, “to make the world know how much we suffer in Egypt.”
But it's not just progressives and liberals who oppose Hosny, reactionary elements do, too, but for other reasons. The culture minister has provoked the ire of Islamists and conservatives in a way that endears him somewhat to me.
At one level, this is part and parcel of his portfolio: culture and art are seen by the most conservative elements as being decadent and corrupting. In addition, Hosny's oft-progressive cultural views have unleashed numerous public storms against him over the years.
One example dates back to 2006, when the urbane minister described the increasing prevalence of the hijab – a trend that has placed increasing social pressure on bare-headed women to conform – as a “step back for Egyptian women”. Not content to dare to suggest that women should let their hair down, he riled conservatives further by sensibly suggesting that if women are obliged to wear hijab, then so should men.
His ministry's choice of books to publish as part of an initiative to bring affordable literature to the masses has also provoked the fury of conservatives. For example, in 2000, the ministry reprinted A Banquet for Seaweed – a novel about exiled and disillusioned Iraqi communists in Algeria – by the acclaimed Syrian author Haidar Haidar. As a sign of the changing times the novel, which had been applauded by critics on its original publication in the early 1980s, was rounded on by al-Azhar clerics and Islamists who accused Haidar of heresy and offending Islam with certain passages in the book. Shamefully, Hosny and his ministry buckled and withdrew the novel.
Hosny is the only unmarried cabinet minister and is euphemistically referred to as a ‘bachelor'. This has, for the most part, sparked light-hearted rumours about his sexuality. However, the country's self-appointed morality police have taken it upon themselves to launch a smear campaign against him.
One Islamist lawyer who has made a career as some kind of ‘God's advocate' went so far as to demand that the minister be stripped of his ministerial immunity so that he can be prosecuted for his hijab remarks and for allegedly breaching the standards of common decency and morality associated with his job.
How, you may ask? By attending a gay pride parade in Rome when he was Egypt's cultural attache in Italy. In a manifestation of the Arabic proverb “He who digs a pit for his brother falls in it himself”, the lawyer also offensively demanded that government's cultural tsar undergo the kind of intrusive medical examination that the regime has used in its recent crackdowns against homosexuals.
But beyond the political and personal, does Hosny have what it takes to run UNESCO? Despite his questionable track record on freedom of expression, Hosny has over two decades of experience and has scored some major successes, including a string of new museums, arts centres, state-funded theatres, the Cairo history rehabilitation project, and the establishment of a cultural development fund.
However, the fact remains that he represents a regime that invests pitifully little in education, science and culture – the mandates of Unesco – and limits the freedoms of its citizens. But then again, if we're ever to have an Arab Unesco chief, are there any better candidates out there?
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 11 September 2009. Read the related discussion.