Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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When a gifted and long-serving public servant appears to say something utterly barbarous, any fair-minded observer will try to understand the circumstances. But when that figure stands a good chance of taking a global role at the head of a major United Nations agency, alarm bells will ring as well. Earlier this month, Egypt's culture minister Farouk Hosny – a favourite to become the next secretary-general of Unesco – was widely quoted as saying in the Egyptian parliament that he would burn Israeli books if he found them in the country's libraries. In response to a question from a Muslim Brotherhood MP who complained about Israeli authors in the library at Alexandria, Hosny reportedly answered: "Bring me these books if they exist and I will burn them in front of you".

The reports, in Egyptian papers including the semi-official Al-Ahram, prompted diplomatic notes of protest from Israel. I sought clarification from the Egyptian embassy, but received no reply. It does seem that an enthusiast for book-burning stands well placed to take control of the international body devoted to education, art and science.

In January, at the Cairo Book Fair, I met the legendary survivor referred to in Egypt as "minister of culture, the artist Farouk Hosny" during a surprisingly long interview with a group of UK visitors. Or not surprisingly, given his Unesco ambitions – evident in the glossy brochure-cum-cv his minders gave to us. This praised the "cosmopolitan spirit of toleration and inclusiveness" he imbibed as a child in (then) multi-faith Alexandria.

True, Hosny is no sort of fanatic or fundamentalist. Quite the opposite – which may be his problem. In his 20-plus years as minister, this champion of "reconciliation" and "enlightenment" has brought plenty of dissident artists and writers under the state's wing. A semi-abstract painter, he has defended work that offended the religious or political mainstream. He got into trouble with the mosques in 2006 when he attacked the veil.

Looking back over my notes of the interview, I also find that Hosny stood up for the film-maker Youssef Chahine, often a thorn in the side of authority. (His latest hit, It's Chaos, tears into police brutality.) In 1997, Chahine's historical fable Destiny portrayed the hounding of the sceptical thinker Averroes (Ibn Rushd) in medieval Andalusia as an era of rationality gave way to one of religious bigotry. The movie's climax involves a scene in which books are spectacularly burned.

I doubt that Hosny really believes in incinerating literature because it hails from an "enemy" nation. But he also has a record as a trimmer, blowing permissive one year and restrictive the next. As with every pillar of Mubarak's fragile secular regime, he comes under pressure to appease the zealots of the Muslim Brotherhood – by far the strongest popular force in Egypt. Hence, I suspect, the atrocious statement now attributed to him.

I hope that, if Hosny uttered the words quoted, he will retract them straight away. If he did not, he should make plain what he does think about Israeli works on Egyptian shelves. If he did advocate book-burning, he should not head Unesco. If he did, and he still gets the job next year, then Britain – and every other country – should think hard about continued membership of the organisation.

A stunt designed purely for his home crowd could lead to a severe away defeat. In Egypt, the Coptic (ie Christian) but non-sectarian newspaper Watani News has commented: "That Hosny voluntarily fell into an Islamist trap is an error that can never be forgiven. No self-respecting country can accept at a global cultural organisation's helm a person prepared to burn books". Exactly.