Talk Like an Egyptian
June 21, 2008
Like the Saudi royals, the House of Mubarak tries to keep both its Islamists and the West happy. It's not easy to have it both ways. Just ask Farouk Hosni.
Egypt's culture minister finds himself in a revealingly knotty predicament. In early May, responding to a question in Parliament from a member of the Muslim Brotherhood about cultural ties with Israel, he said: "I'd burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt." The opposition MP, Mohsen Radi, was satisfied with the minister's response.
The statement was unremarkable in a country where media and politics are full of anti-Israel venom. But Mr. Hosni also happens to be a leading candidate for the top job at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco. His remark drew an official protest from Israel, among others. Declining to comment on Mr. Hosni's observation, a spokeswoman for the Paris-based agency told the New York Sun, "Unesco does not condone book burning of any sort." That's good to know.
With a plum U.N. job slipping out of his reach, Mr. Hosni backtracked. He said the "book burning" remark was merely "a hyperbole a popular expression to prove something does not exist." The minister, who is close to President Hosni Mubarak and his wife and considered a liberal by local standards, went further the following day. He told Agence France-Presse that it is "a big mistake that Israeli books have not yet been translated (into Arabic). I have officially asked for it to be done. If people protest, I don't give a damn."
So, three decades after the Camp David accords, would Mr. Hosni support the opening of so far nonexistent cultural ties with Israel? What about a museum of Jewish antiquity and culture in Cairo? The Egyptian went into reverse again. Impossible, Mr. Hosni said, as long as "there are bloody attacks every day against the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza strip."
This story has now been picked up in France, which backs Mr. Hosni's candidacy for the Unesco post, which comes open next year. The Paris daily Libération cited a Simon Wiesenthal Center report that the Egyptian minister had "personally" invited the "Islamo-Communist Holocaust denier" (in Libération's words) Roger Garaudy to appear on Egyptian television.
Back in damage-control mode, Mr. Hosni gave an interview to the Tel Aviv newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth last week, saying he "wouldn't be against going to Israel." He was in Paris this week to smooth things over. "This is a terrible polemic, but things will be clarified."
Meantime, in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood MP got wind of Mr. Hosni's comments abroad and demanded that he appear before Parliament to explain himself. The suggestion that Egypt's culture minister visit the Jewish state "was humiliating to the Egyptian people," said Mr. Radi.
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