The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Bad Minister

It appears that Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouq Hosni's bid to be the next head of UNESCO has been derailed, or at least seriously damaged. I agree that it would be disgraceful for him to be made head of the cultural institution--but for entirely different reasons than those mentioned so far. 

Hosni was set to easily win the plum position, when this letter appeared in Le Monde, spear-heading a campaign against his candidacy based on accusations of anti-Semitism. The most damaging and oft-cited incident is the following: last year Hosni was challenged by hostile members of Parliament over the inclusion of Israeli books in the Alexandria Library. He replied that if there were such books "he would burn them himself." (I have been trying unsuccessfully to find an account of the original exchange in Arabic, to see if it was a discussion of "Israeli books" or "Jewish books"--both are used interchangeably in the English and Arabic reporting, although it seems a significant difference to me). 

Hosni replied by penning an apology of sorts in Le Monde. Western and Arab media joined in to comment on the controversy. 

Hosni--who is a an abstract painter and good friend of First Lady Suzanne Mubarak--has been at a the center of several previous scandals. There were calls for his resignation after a fire at a poorly maintained national theater left 46 dead. And he was again at the center of a firestorm when he told a female veiled journalist that the veil was a sign of "backwardness."

Hosni's remarks about burning books were of course idiotic--if completely unsurprising to someone familiar with Egypt's political climate and the widespread hostility to Israel. A few points need to be made, however. It is convenient but incorrect for Israel's supporters to reduce the cultural boycott of Israel--which is adhered to by the overwhelming majority of Egyptian artist and intellectuals--to anti-Semitism. It's a political position--a matter of showing solidarity to the Palestinian cause and disapproval of Egypt's choice to normalize relations with Israel. 

Also, while it's accepted that it's anti-Semitic for the Egyptian authorities to reject or denigrate Israeli culture, one doesn't hear similar criticism of the Israeli authorities for their intolerance towards the cultural initiatives of its Arab citizens or occupied Palestinian subjects (see the harassment of the Palestine Literature Festival for example). Plenty of Israeli officials have made sweeping, negative comments about Palestinian/Muslim/Arab culture, and in 2000 Israel wasn't ready to include two poems by Mahmoud Darwish in a school book. 

Farouq Hosni shouldn't be the head of UNESCO. Not just because of his (probably entirely politically opportunistic) Israel-bashing. But mostly because he is the longest-serving minister (22 years) in an autocratic state that does not respect freedom of expression; because he presides over a corrupt and mediocre ministry and has acted in the interest of the regime rather than the interests of culture time and again; because he is generally loathed by Egyptian artists and writers of any standing. He shouldn't be head of UNESCO not because of his disrespect for Israeli culture--but because of his much deeper, more damaging disrespect of Egyptian culture.