CAIRO: I write this amid news of Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni’s UNESCO Director-General lead in the first round of voting for the UN body’s top position.
Honestly, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or simply twiddle my thumbs and gape in disbelief.
Who would have thought that Hosni would rake a sweeping lead of 22 out of 57 votes expressed, with the first runner up Bulgarian candidate Irina Gueorguieva Bokova securing a miniscule eight votes?
Following almost a year of international, Israeli-stoked controversy over his candidature, endorsed by major US and European mass media, one can only say that in his case, bad publicity was certainly good publicity.
Hosni’s challenges seemed insurmountable. The combination of an Israeli smear campaign led by ubiquitous accusations of anti-Semitism because of his off-the-cuff threat to burn Israeli books if any existed in Egyptian libraries; as well as internal Egyptian opposition for the nomination of the longest-sitting minister in a despotic regime, seemed to have sealed his fate.
But Thursday’s results have turned all expectations on their head.
Clearly as an Egyptian, it’s a source of pride when one of my countrymen is voted head of a major international organization. Icons like Boutros Boutros Ghali, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and Mohamed Elbaradie, the outgoing Nobel Prize-winning top man in the International Atomic Energy Agency, raised Egypt’s profile in the global arena with their powerful stances on vital issues.
With Hosni, my feelings are more ambivalent. One cannot simply write off the achievements of Egypt’s culture ministry under his almost 23-year ‘guardianship’, which includes massive restorations of Islamic and Coptic monuments, the building of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and the Grand Egyptian museum now under construction. But still we must remember that he has been there for over two decades.
His multiple terms as culture minister was also marred by book censorships and an overall decline in the quality of Egypt’s cultural output whether in the world of literature, art or cinema. According to UNESCO statistics, in 1974, Egypt published 1,765 books, which went up to 3,108 in 1993, then down to 2,215 in 1995. A little over 10 years later and the number could not have gone higher by more than just 500 books at the most, which puts Egypt far below Israel for example at 7,414 new titles in 2008, according to the Legal Deposit Department’s Israeli Book Statistics.
In fact, it’s shameful that in 2009 no such information about how many books are published in Egypt annually is available online. If it proves anything, it’s how little attention the culture minister has given the Egyptian General Book Organization.
What small steps achieved in theater, art and cinema have also been the fruit of the great efforts of dedicated individuals like Mohamed El Sawy, who has revolutionized the dynamic of cultural access both for the creative artists and audience through El Sawy Culture Wheel – all with very little help from the ministry. The numerous visual art spaces that have cropped up and gained a devoted following over the past decade or so have also been privately-funded and managed.
The decay of the entire cultural scene, including its physical aspects, like theaters, reached a climax with the fire that gutted a Beni Suef public theater in 2005, killing some of Egypt’s theater icons in the process.
The question is, was the trouble with Hosni per se, or was the system he’s been symbiotically attached to for so many years responsible for his failings? As possible Director-General of the UNESCO, will he bring with him the now engrained inheritance of mediocrity, or will the UNESCO admin machine inform his decisions and hence his achievements? What would be the impact on Egypt’s international standing if he did get the post, but embarrassed us with bad decisions and incompetence?
With much speculation regarding France backing Egypt because it’s a key ally in its drive for a Mediterranean Union and the US secretly lobbying against Hosni perhaps to appease a virulent Jewish US lobby or to weaken Sarkozy’s hopes for stronger ties with its own strategic ally, it seems that the battle for UNESCO is actually between France and the US.
As we’ve gotten accustomed, Egypt is a pawn in this global chess game, where the only sure losers are the Egyptian people.
In the event Hosni does win, we will once more be reminded that the despotic government which has been ruling us with the iron fist of emergency laws that flout all human rights and is plagued by endemic corruption enjoys the relentless support of First World democracies. Hosni, who symbolizes the decadence of the National Democratic Party’s 28-year rule, will end up with a great retirement package, in a tacit nod to the failed regime he so faithfully represents.
If there is any silver lining, then it would be the hope for new blood at the culture ministry if Hosni packs his bags and moves to Paris, or he goes home as he promised to resign if he doesn’t make it.
The big mystery now is, who’s next?
Rania Al Malkyis the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.