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A Book Burner for UNESCO?

By Mona Eltahawy
Monday, September 14, 2009

As deliberations began ahead of voting for the new culture chief of the United Nations, news surfaced last week that Egyptian police had arrested more than 150 people for allegedly breaking the daylight fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

What does a security crackdown resembling Saudi-style morality policing have to do with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization?

A lot, given that a serious contender for that UNESCO job is Farouk Hosni, Egypt's culture minister for the past 22 years. During his lengthy tenure, Hosni has alienated many Egyptians by suffocating cultural and intellectual freedom while giving a leg up to religious zealotry.

The most strenuous objections to Hosni's bid have been charges of anti-Semitism tied to comments he made in May 2008 that he would "burn Israeli books" himself if he found any in Egyptian libraries.

Yet the anger behind these protests should be directed at Hosni's boss, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has controlled Egypt for 28 of the 30 years since it became the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel. When it comes to Israel, Mubarak has perfected the art of double dealing -- keeping official and business ties intact (and the border with Gaza closed) but unleashing populist anger at the Jewish state and barring cultural ties ostensibly in solidarity with Palestinians.

In just the sort of backdoor dealings that sustain the peace treaty, Israel has promised it won't oppose Hosni's bid in return for an unstated diplomatic trade-off with Egypt.

A stronger case against Hosni's bid to lead the U.N. cultural organization would focus on how he has used censorship and disregarded individual freedom to ultimately strip Egypt of its robust culture. He might not have actually burned books, but he has banned plenty. In 2006, Hosni ordered all copies of "The Da Vinci Code" confiscated and banned the film from Egyptian screens. Never mind that the Vatican itself hadn't called for such a ban, that thousands of Egyptians already owned copies of the book and that bootleg DVDs were already on sale in Egypt.

Hosni told an applauding parliament: "We ban any book that insults any religion."

That ban came in response to a complaint from a Christian parliamentarian, but Hosni, himself an artist, has capitulated to Muslim zealotry, too. In 2001, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood -- the Islamic political organization that today is the main opposition to Mubarak's regime -- serving in parliament complained that three novels published by a branch of the Culture Ministry were "pornographic." They weren't. One literary critic said, "Anyone excited by the prospect of reading these three novels in order to get a pornographic kick will be very disappointed."

But within days, Hosni had ordered an investigation, and the books were pulled from circulation.

Not content to merely agree that the novels were "pornographic," Hosni fired three employees of the Culture Ministry, including the head of the department that published them, and dismissed concerns about freedom of expression by saying: "My fundamental responsibility is to protect society's values from pornographic works." He reminded people that Egypt wasn't Europe.

Hosni has told writers who flouted social values to leave Egypt and has vowed not to publish any book, even novels, that contested religion or violated those values.

For Muslim and Christian Egyptians who believe the state is not in charge of policing our morals, it is disturbing to see the culture minister claim he is the guardian of our values -- and only a short step from that to the police in Aswan arresting people last week for allegedly publicly breaking the Ramadan fast, disregarding religious freedoms and the rights of Christians.

The reign of fundamentalists is unsurprising given the stifled political atmosphere in Egypt. Mubarak is Egypt's longest-serving president in modern history -- and for all of his years in power, Egypt has been under a state of emergency that allows him to suspend the rule of law.

One of UNESCO's missions is to promote freedom of expression, so why would it want a director who has so adeptly stifled such freedom?

Hosni belongs to a regime that has decimated practically all forms of political opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood is essentially the last man standing, and the secular intelligentsia is considerably weakened. When Hosni has agreed that books deserve to be banned, he has flown the flag for the regime's tactic of outdoing the fundamentalists in religiosity.

Today that tactic involves the use of Salafi Islam -- an ultra-conservative interpretation most common in Saudi Arabia -- to fight the Brotherhood, hence the Ramadan arrests. The ramifications for Egypt's already frail freedoms are worrisome, to say the least.

Hosni's supporters say that it's time for an Arab U.N. cultural chief. It may be. But with his record, Farouk Hosni doesn't deserve to head UNESCO. Those of us proud of our Arab heritage, full of artists who challenge and enlighten rather than restrict in efforts to "protect" our morals, know that Farouk Hosni is not the man to represent us.

Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born writer and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. Her e-mail address is info@monaeltahawy.com.

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