Boyd Tonkin: The artist-minister is painted into a corner

The Week In Books

When a government minister politely kidnaps you for a spell of full-on self-promotion, you tend to take an interest in his subsequent career. Last January, at the Cairo Book Fair, a small party of British visitors was suddenly whisked into the presence of Farouk Hosny – or should I say "Minister of Culture, the artist Farouk Hosny". Always close to President Mubarak, this suave survivor has kept his post through more than 20 years of upheavals at the top table of the Egyptian state.

Perhaps we expected a routine handshake with the semi-abstract painter and astute administrator who has alternately lifted and dashed the hopes of Egypt's writers, artists and journalists for more durable liberties. Instead, we got a long audience – duly filmed - with the leading candidate to head the United Nations' cultural arm. At that stage, Hosny had good reasons to predict that he would take over this month as the first Arab chief of Unesco.

A few months later, Hosny stood up in Egypt's parliament and made his now-infamous remark about the presence of Israeli books in the new Library of Alexandria: "Bring me these books if they exist and I will burn them in front of you". This column, among the first Western media outlets to report his statement, also made the point that Hosny – an enemy of the veil, and hated by the opposition Muslim Brotherhood – had no record as a fanatic of any sort. Indeed, he praises the "cosmopolitan spirit of toleration and inclusiveness" in his native city of Alexandria.

I hoped then that "if Hosny uttered the words quoted, he will retract them straight away". He did duly deny any book-burning intentions – in a Le Monde article, after high-profile French intellectuals had begun to campaign against his Unesco candidature. "A stunt designed purely for his home crowd," I wrote, "could lead to a severe away defeat." So it has turned out. Last week, after five nail-biting rounds, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria became the first woman, and the first Eastern European, to be chosen as director of the UN's agency for arts, science and education. In the final run-off, she beat Hosny 31-27.

Hosny has done some good deeds for literature and learning in Egypt, as well as conniving with repression when the political wind changed. A permanent "state of emergency" makes all publishers and other media (notably bloggers) potentially vulnerable to state censorship. Meanwhile, a new draft law threatens anyone whose writing harms "national unity" or "public order".

But nothing in Hosny's past supports the belief that he thinks like a bigot. How sad, then, to read that on his return to Cairo after the vote, the minister claimed that "there was a conspiracy against me. There are 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." Many people find Hosny a fascinating figure, but despair descends when even this smoothest of operators opts to press that grubby old button.

Some liberal and dissident figures in Egypt have rallied round to commiserate with Hosny. Mohamed Salmawy, head of the Writers' Union, called the defeat "a dangerous development". Their attitude seems to be: "He may be a scoundrel, but he's our scoundrel." A dread of foreign humiliation often seems to lurk beneath the surface of cultural debate in Egypt. The Unesco rebuff has re-opened those wounds.

Not, however, with everyone. Alaa Al Aswany, the country's best-selling global author, has always insisted that dictatorship in Egypt is the main issue, not the foibles of its enforcers. "As the director of Unesco, you're supposed to support human rights, democracy, equality between people, free elections," the author of The Yacoubian Building has said, "elements that are especially absent in Mr Hosny's regime." When will that regime grasp that the forthright freedom of an Al Aswany does more for Egypt's dignity abroad than a hundred plum jobs with the UN?

P.S.At the British Book Awards – the "Nibbies" – earlier this year, a ludicrous parade of celebrity TV presenters rolled up to announce one after the other that they had a little book appearing soon. When October arrives, the leaves fall and the stars come out in heavily-discounted hardback. So far, with the likes of Chris Evans, Peter Kay and Ozzy Osbourne snapping at their heels, that baby-faced duo Ant and Dec (left) have set the early sales pace with their subtly-titled Ooh! What a Lovely Pair. Barring a miracle (or a conspiracy?) none of these TV faces will come anywhere close to the sales of Dan Brown: 1.9 million worldwide for The Lost Symbol in its first week alone. It would be satisfying if the late Stieg Larsson could trounce some prime-time monopolists too - his Nibbies award in April drew a bigger cheer from the book folk than any of the celebs.