Posted: 10/4/2009 2:55:00 PM
Author: Michael Sclakman

by Michael Slackman
This article originally appeared in The NY Times of 9/25/2009 and was posted in the SPME FACULTY FORUM on Oct 4, 2009.

CAIRO - For days after Egypt ’s culture minister, Farouk Hosny, failed in his bid to lead the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Egyptian newspapers and government officials presented the defeat as a sign of Western prejudice against Islam and the Arab world, the product of an international Jewish conspiracy.

“America, Europe and the Jewish lobby brought down Farouk Hosni,” read a headline in an independent daily newspaper, Al Masry Al Yom. The foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, criticized “international Judaism and Western powers” in a television interview. Mr. Hosny himself helped stoke those sentiments, saying, “There was a group of the world’s Jews who had a major influence in the elections who were a serious threat to Egypt taking this position.”

All of Egypt, indeed all of the Arab world, was talking with one voice of outrage and insult.

Or so it seemed.

While no one here would argue that Israel and its supporters played no role in Mr. Hosny’sdefeat to a Bulgarian diplomat, many people said that his failure was at least as much a sign of Egypt’s long, slow slide as the center of Arab culture, thought and influence. They said the defeat might represent a rejection of Muslims and Arabs, but perhaps more importantly a rejection of their authoritarian leaders.

Mr. Hosny, a favorite of President Hosni Mubarak, was roundly despised by many members of the nation’s cultural elite, who say he did little or nothing in his 22 years as culture minister to encourage cultural development and did much, particularly through the enforcement of strict government censorship, to stunt it.

In the independent newspaper Shorouk, Fahmy Howeidy wrote: “I am not exaggerating when I say that the failure of Mr. Farouk Hosny is not due to his hostility against Israel, as it was said, but the important reason that contributed to his failure is he represents a country that ranks among the politically failed states, where a monopoly of power and governing the state under emergency rule for more than a quarter of a century, where it suppresses public freedom, affects the image of its candidate.”

The defeat provoked a degree of quiet soul-searching here. The state’s retreat to anti-Zionism and to some extent, anti-Semitism, underscored for many here the region’s collective political impotence, a failure of Arab leaders to form a powerful regional bloc capable of winning support from power brokers in Washington, London or Paris that has lasted decades.

The pan-Arab daily newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi wrote that Mr. Hosny’s loss “comes as yet another confirmation of the Arab world’s - and Egypt’s in particular - backslide on the international arena, and the general lack of respect towards it in all areas, not exclusively culture.”

Mr. Hosny, 71, is a well-known figure in Egypt. He has been the minister for more than two decades. Oddly enough, considering the charges of anti-Semitism that derailed his candidacy, he has never been known as a strong opponent of normalizing ties with Israel.

True, he has resisted a warm peace, refused to visit Tel Aviv
AND WAS QUOTED AS SAYING HE WOULD BURN ISRAELI BOOKS IF HE FOUND THEM IN A LIBRARY. But proponents say he took these actions as the bare minimum to defend himself from a population that views Israel as the enemy.

Throughout his candidacy, Mr. Hosny struggled to mute the charges of anti-Semitism, efforts that caused many people in Egypt to wince as they watched a stalwart of the state apologize, to Israel no less. And they winced again, when he blamed a Jewish-Zionist conspiracy for his loss.

“He did not take an anti-normalization stand until the end,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, an independent Egyptian blogger and journalist. “The moment he lost he came back and started saying some of the most foul anti-Semitic statements against the Jews, confirming what the West had said about him.”

Mr. Hosny lost his bid for Unesco, but tried to turn that into a victory at home, returning as a victim, and for the state-run media a hero. The charges of a Western, Jewish-Zionist conspiracy may have been amplified by a government eager to limit its embarrassment after having staked its credibility on Mr. Hosny.

But they are not new, said Hala Mustafa, editor in chief of the weekly magazine Democracy and a member of Mr. Mubarak’s governing party. When it comes to domestic politics, she said, Egyptian officials often try to present themselves as anti-Israeli, even while serving as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

Ms. Mustafa has been squeezed by that dual identity.

In her capacity as an editor and academic in the state-financed Ahram Center, she recently met with Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, Shalom Cohen. She has since been tarred in the press as a “normalizer,” and the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate has tried to blacklist her. Ms. Mustafa said she saw the state’s rush to blame Israel for Mr. Hosny’s loss as stemming from the same forces busy attacking her.

“We have been under this propaganda for 30 years,” she said. “Like Egypt doesn’t have a peace treaty with Israel? Like Egypt does not play a peace role between Israel and the Palestinians? If that is Egypt’s role, why are we not allowed to play the same role?”

There is another view, too, one that was published in English, allowing, perhaps for a degree of candor not found in the Arabic news media. Writing in the English-language Daily News, the chief editor, Rania al-Malky, suggested that Mr. Hosny might have done as well as he did because he was Arab and Muslim, not because he was qualified. His defeat, she wrote, should not surprise anyone.

“I will say this at the risk of being branded unpatriotic, but no matter where you stand on the political spectrum,” she wrote, “you must admit that the Egyptian administration did not deserve to win this bid. How can a 22-year minister of a country where culture, education, health and science have regressed to the Dark Ages become the head of Unesco?”