Cairo nominee for Unesco chief stirs controversy

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s intellectual class has gone to war. The country’s summer doldrums, it would seem, have passed.

The enemy? Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, who, this week, will face off against eight other candidates in a bid to become the next head of Unesco.

Hosni was long seen as the frontrunner for the job. His boss, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, threw his support behind the run, declaring that it was finally time for an Arab to take the reins of the U.N.’s main educational and cultural body and using his considerable diplomatic and political savvy to bring other voting countries on board.

And Mubarak’s full-throated support is no surprise. Hosni, at 71, is Egypt’s longest-serving minister, with 22 years in the post. He has survived under a president that has long used job reassignments and cabinet shuffles to consolidate power. Hosni is said to be a favorite of Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak.

Mubarak and Hosni launched their campaign early, with efficiency, and used years of stored  political capital to secure a large number of endorsements behind closed doors. According to Diaa Rashwan, a scholar at Egyptian think tank Al-Ahram Center, countries signed on early for diplomatic reasons without evaluating the record.

No proximity to the first family, though, could stave off the eruption of controversy that consumed Hosni earlier this year.

As the campaign for the Unesco job heated up, Hosni’s own words came back to bite him. 

In May 2008, he reportedly told an Egyptian parliamentarian that he would burn any Israeli books found on the shelves of Egypt’s libraries. Though Hosni expressed regret, the damage was done. Several European intellectuals, including Jewish writer Elie Wiesel, wrote a letter, calling Hosni “dangerous.”

The press jumped on the comment, with headlines slamming the would-be Unesco chief’s political and cultural insensitivity. Incredibly, according to local media, Israel agreed to drop the complaint against Egypt after the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mubarak met in May.

International indignance aside, artists and intellectuals inside Egypt say that Hosni’s domestic record of repressing and degrading Egyptian culture is far more ominous.

Hosni has a history of banning or censoring works of literature and cinema.

In 2001, Hosni frustrated the liberal elite for banning three books that some complained were risque. The incident sparked outrage and debate in the country.

The ministry also routinely censors films, cutting out sex, profanity and controversial political commentary (yes, scenes from “I Love You, Man” referencing the pet dog, Anwar, were nowhere to be found on Egyptian screens).

Alaa Al Aswany, today a renowned author, wrote his first novella, "The Isam Abd el-Ati Papers," more than a decade ago.

When he first took the work to the General Egyptian Book Organization, under the Ministry of Culture, it was refused for publication because, they told him, his protagonist had criticized beloved Egyptian leader, Mustafa Kamil, in the first sentence of the book. Al Aswany finally published the work this year, using a private publisher.

According to Al Aswany, Hosni approaches his job more as a scrappy politician than as a cultural steward.

Hosni “succeeded to make a link between many intellectuals and the state,” he said. “You have many intellectuals with a real interest to support the state, to support Farouk Hosni. They forget their duty and become agents of the Ministry of Culture.”

According to Al Aswany, Hosni is guilty of using nepotism and corruption to cultivate a class of cultural sycophants, who won’t challenge the status quo.

Osama Nassar, adviser to the minister, is accompanying Hosni to the Unesco vote. In a phone call from Paris, he responded angrily to the charges.

“That’s the claim of some people who do not know what they’re talking about,” Nassar said. “He has always fought for the freedom of expression.”

It may be, though, that the nature of his job requires Hosni to balance his intellectual principles as a painter (which he is, by trade) and his duty under a heavy-handed regime.

“Hosni still keeps his job, not only because he’s a good minister of culture, but because he serves the cultural requirements of the regime,” said Rashwan, of the Al-Ahram Center. 

The rise of Islam in Egypt under Mubarak has presented a unique challenge to the regime. As the country’s culture has trended more conservative, the government has had to find a way to out Islam the Islamists in order to stay effective, says Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian intellectual and writer who has been critical of Hosni’s bid to run Unesco.

Hosni has been at the forefront of that effort. Even though the government is a secular one, “they need to use the aura of religion” to retain popular support, said Eltahawy.

Both Hosni’s 2001 book banning efforts and his 2008 outburst against Israeli literature came in response to comments made by Islamist members of parliament.

Much of his censorship of television and film is designed so as not to offend the increasingly conservative Muslim sensibilities of regular Egyptians.

But because of his willingness to play politics, says Eltahawy, the world can’t know what it’s getting in Hosni as Unesco chief.

“Giving him the head of Unesco is rewarding a man who has abandoned his principles as an artist for the sake of political power,” she said. “You can’t pin him down. You can’t figure out what sort of values he has.”

The voting begins on Thursday and may last several rounds. Win or not, Hosni has revealed a fault line in the Middle East, one centered around freedom of expression in a part of the world where not much is considered “free.”