Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni is no stranger to criticism. For over 20 years he has been among the most controversial cabinet ministers, frequently locked in feuds with the National Democratic Party (NDP) and Islamist politicians as well as left-wing intellectuals. But in what is perhaps the fiercest campaign against him to date, last week Hosni was accused by Israeli newspapers of upping the ante in increased diplomatic tension between Egypt and Israel after being quoted as saying he would burn Israeli books himself if he found any in libraries in Egypt. The remark could, as some suggest, thwart his bid to become the head of UNESCO.
Hosni’s comment came during an NDP meeting on 10 May in reply to questioning from opposition MP Mohsen Radi. The statement angered Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Shalom Cohen who in a classified report submitted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, described it as “harsh and especially blunt, in a way which makes it impossible for Israel and for the international community to continue a regular agenda with Egypt.”
On its online news edition, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot said, “The newspaper was informed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs accepted the Israeli ambassador’s suggestion to present a stern protest to the Egyptian government. Simultaneously, the ministry issued a strong protest to the Egyptian ambassador in Israel.”Aharonot also said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni likely raised the issue in her discussions with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit. A message sent this week by the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for international relations, Shimon Samuels, to UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura warned of “a major threat to the very values of UNESCO”, referring to Hosni’s remarks. Samuels noted in his letter, “according to Egyptian sources, Hosni has himself admitted to this statement, couched in the language and actions of Nazi Minister of Culture Josef Goebbels — a scandal irrespective of the cultural origins of the authors targeted,” and stressing that, “Hosni is considered a serious candidate to replace Matsuura as director-general of UNESCO.”
The letter continued, “in that context, it should be noted that Hosni hardly reflects Egypt’s cultural glory.”
In his letter, Samuels accused Hosni of being anti-Semitic after personally inviting Muslim French writer Roger Garaudy, who is a Holocaust disbeliever, to speak in Cairo and to apologise for genocide, in a one- hour interview on national television. Samuel also charged Hosni with blocking the establishment of a museum of Egyptian Jewish history in Cairo. The centre urged Matsuura to view “these protestations as empty in view of Hosni’s known positions and latest excess — an aspirant book- burner who threatens to wield culture as a weapon, and who cannot head the intellectual arm of the United Nations. His prejudices, intolerance and disrespect preclude any ability to administer UNESCO’s dialogue among civilisations and its mandate for multiculturalism.”
“The Wiesenthal Centre will join together with the true champions of all cultures to engage voting states on the impossible scenario of Hosni as director-general of UNESCO,” concluded Samuels. In August last year Egypt put up Hosni’s name as a candidate for UNESCO in an election set for January 2009. The nomination was supported by France, Spain and Italy and other European countries. Supervisors of Hosni’s election campaign in Cairo, who seek anonymity, asserted that as Hosni’s chances to win the UNESCO post increases, Jewish newspapers and Israeli officials do not hesitate to remind international public opinion that Hosni, as Egypt’s minister of culture, is against cultural normalisation with Israel and opposes its participation in any cultural events in Egypt.
In her column in the daily Israeli newspaper Haaretz, an Israeli writer said that Israel can support any Egyptian official to direct UNESCO except Hosni who stands against Egypt’s cultural normalisation with Israel and who banned the participation of the Israeli film The Band’s Visit in the Cairo International Film Festival. The sources say the anti-Hosni campaign recently increased after some Mediterranean and Asian countries announced their initial approval of Hosni’s nomination during their meeting at a cultural dialogue held in Sharm El-Sheikh. In a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly Hosni described the accusations made by the Simon Wiesenthal Centre as unfounded and deficient of substance and gravity. He pointed out that statements made by Cohen was a personal reaction following his refusal of cultural normalisation with Israel. “How can we have cultural normalisation with Israel as Palestinian blood is being spilt in the occupied territories?” Hosni asked, asserting that, “normalisation will only take place if Israel honours its international obligations towards the Palestinians and recognises their right to have their own state.” “If I win the post of UNESCO director- general the whole world will be my nation and I will serve world culture without discrimination between states,” Hosni told the Weekly.
He said his remark was hyperbole used in response to a comment by a member of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood who said Egyptian bookshops and libraries were full of Israeli books. “I denied this and told the MP, using a hyperbole, that if those books existed I would burn them myself,” Hosni said. “This was a way of confirming the denial, not confirming the act of burning,” he clarified. “On the same day, I went on Egyptian TV and said Israeli books should be translated into Arabic in order to better understand Israelis who translate many books from Arabic and know us much better than we know them,” Hosni added. Being a minister of culture, he could not order the burning of books, he said.
As for being accused of anti-Semitism, Hosni said, “How can we fight against ourselves? We are Semites.” As for blocking an initiative to build an Egyptian Jewish history museum in Cairo, Hosni’s response was, “If what the Wiesenthal Centre said was true, why would I be ordering the restoration of Jewish temples and the preservation of Jewish papyri as part of world heritage? “Egypt is always keen to preserve and protect Jewish monuments as an Egyptian cultural and archaeological heritage,” Hosni said, noting that the Supreme Council of Antiquities has put 10 Jewish synagogues on Egypt’s heritage list, nine in Cairo and one in Alexandria. “If what I said really meant the actual burning of books, then I would be ordering the burning of Jewish temples and papyri, not restoring and preserving them,” the minister said. Hosni said some Israelis were inciting public opinion against him on the Internet. He said it was not a personal attack but was being waged against Egypt and the Arab world’s UNESCO candidate.