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Cairo nominee for Unesco chief stirs controversy

What Egyptian artists and intellectuals want you to know about the man who might lead the world cultural body.

Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian minister of culture, speaks to the press at the pyramids in Giza, March 13, 2007, before the world premiere of "The Princess of the Sun," an animated French-Belgian cartoon about Tutankhamun's reign. (Tara Todras-Whitehill/Reuters)

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.