Farouk Hosni: Politics of temperament
Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, a painter by profession, is no stranger to criticism. Over 20 years in office he has been among the most controversial cabinet ministers, frequently locked in conflict with the NDP and Islamist politicians as well as left-wing oppositional intellectuals. In what was perhaps the fiercest campaign against him to date, last week Hosni was blamed for the disastrous fire that broke out at the Beni Sweif Cultural Palace during a theatrical performance on 5 September -- a tragedy that killed some 48 spectators and injured more. It was in the wake of that incident that he tendered his resignation to President Hosni Mubarak last Wednesday. Three days later, responding to the pleas of some 400 high-profile intellectuals, the president decreed that Hosni should resume his duties. "Despite conceding the ministry's accountability, I had the most to lose in such a disaster," Hosni later declared. "But I realised the charges were directed against me personally, even before investigations began. Feeling I had embarrassed the regime, I decided to bear the political responsibility myself."
Housed in a sedate 19th-century Zamalek villa, few things about the Ministry of Culture suggest the emotive nature of its principal occupant. There is a Tahiya Halim painting, a Hamed Nada study, small works of clay and bronze. A warm and spacious relief after the somewhat cramped experience of the waiting room, the office of the "artist minister", its off-white walls studded with gold-framed classics, exudes a sparse elegance. And Hosni's grin betrays calmness as he settles into his leather chair. "I will start with your last question," he says after a long pause, when I have finished reading out my notes. "Allow me to say that this line of thinking merely underlines those people's naiveté -- that my resignation should be seen as a political manoeuvre to get me out of a tight spot. How could it possibly improve my legal prospects, pray tell? No one is above the law, whether in or out of the cabinet. I have said it before and I say it again: if the investigations indict me, I will be more than ready for trial."When Hosni came to the ministry in 1987, it was straight from Rome, where he was director of the Egyptian Academy of Arts. Before that, he had spent eight years as cultural attaché in Paris. An abstract painter, he held exhibitions in New York, Vienna and Tokyo as well as most of the Arab world, winning, among other awards, the Japanese Soka Gakai International University culture and peace prize. This is significant in itself -- a key to Hosni's cabinet career. For it was facilitating if not practising art that remained his priority.
Hosni was born and grew up in Alexandria, where the relatively cosmopolitan Mediterranean atmosphere and a local tradition of painting sustained his creative bent; on graduating from Alexandria University's School of Fine Arts, he directed Al-Anfoushi Cultural Palace for six years. This unique background made for unprecedented expansion of state-run exhibition spaces under his tenure: he introduced, among other venues, the Horizon One Gallery, attached to the Mahmoud Khalil Museum, the Palace of Arts, on the Opera House Grounds, and the Gezira Arts Centre, behind the Ceramics Museum in Zamalek. The number of biennales and triennales multiplied, and, among other ways of encouraging the young, Hosni launched publishing initiatives; notably, he established the Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theatre. The Opera House-based Modern Dance Troupe and School, under the tutelage of Walid Aouni, the Cairo History Rehabilitation Project, the Nubia Museum in Aswan and the Alexandria National Museum (under construction are the Grand Museum of Egypt, overlooking the Giza Plateau, and the National Museum of Civilisation in Fustat), the Cultural Development Fund -- which supports the world famous Aswan Sculpture Symposium -- and international exchange programmes (recent among these is the Rome Creativity Award for artists less than 35 years of age) are all due to him; so is the rise in the number of public libraries.
Such efforts did not always solicit praise, however. And in the tightly circumscribed world of intellectuals, a large camp soon took it upon itself to systematically undermine him. Such attitudes came to a head following the Beni Sweif tragedy, about which Hosni's censurers' were up in arms even after he tendered his resignation. Nor did it help to cancel the inaugural ceremony of the Experimental Theatre Festival, to open on 20 September, or draw up a committee to inspect the ministry's 16 performance spaces for safety -- the committee in question has closed down two and expressed reservations about another two. Other than the "charade" scenario, the move was described as an attempt to capitalise on a fait accompli -- Hosni was close enough to the powers that be to know he would be excluded in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle, and thought he might as well resign to garner sympathy. (Some pointed out that he never thought of resigning when the Musaferkhana, a Ministry of Culture venue as well as an important monument, burned down).
And it seems to be such attitudes that annoy him the most, judging by the tone of his response to it: "When you've held a post for 18 years, you cannot be sensibly assessed on the basis of one or two. People don't seem to realise that the Musaferkhana fire, which started outside the building, was the responsibility of the Cairo Governorate. It's less about the ministry than culture. I feel responsible for Egypt's cultural portfolio but I don't like power; it's a word that doesn't exist for me -- so it's hardly a loss, if I no longer have it. The loss would be, rather, giving up on a portfolio that's 90 per cent complete. But if you leave a job after 18 years, does that mean you were tyrannised, ill-treated? Actually it is something I could've looked forward to many years ago. And those who express such power-obsessed thinking say more about themselves than me. A charade? No minister can play around with a head of state. The truth is I felt I had embarrassed a regime that I deeply respect, and I thought if there was going to be a scapegoat, that might as well be me. So there hasn't been a written resignation document, is that so? Only a fortune-teller could make such an outrageous claim, from outside the presidency. I will not reveal the wording of the document in question, but there are witnesses to it, naturally. I had to hand it in to someone."
The minister highlights two motives that informed his decision to resign: grief over the loss of the predominantly young artists and critics who died watching an amateur play in Beni Sweif, and the need to "calm the public". As to the accusation that he is in (ministerial) show business, Hosni feels such claims can only have been made by "adolescents, or marionettes" who, having only just set out as political analysts, are dictated to by older foes of his. On the other hand reports of a conflict with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif -- in submitting his resignation to the president, it was said, Hosni had overstepped the latter -- are in fact constitutional nonsense. "I do not sidestep the prime minister if I fail to inform him of my decision to resign," Hosni explains, laughing. "A minister is, by law, an aide to the president -- appointed and dismissed by presidential decree. The role of the prime minister is to recommend a cabinet."
He did describe the weekly journal Akhbar Al-Adab -- among other publications that have been party to the campaign against him -- as "sadistic and pathetic", he concedes, "comparable to the terrorists who abduct people in Iraq". Akhbar Al-Adab editor, novelist Gamal El-Ghitani -- perhaps Hosni's harshest critic, he has frequently cast himself in the role of shadow minister of culture -- "has a sickness named Farouk Hosni, and I won't pray to God to cure him". Critics who picked on Hosni's use of a language that "does not befit a culture minister" fail to understand that he did so in order to make his statements as clear as possible -- in contrast to El-Ghitani's "ambiguous, messy rhetoric, dressed up as Ibn Iyass". But now that the government agreed to fund the development of the Cultural Palaces, on Hosni's demand following the president's decision that he should resume his duties, the public has every reason to be angry: why did not such development take place in time to avoid a catastrophe, if the government can afford it? Only two months ago Hosni's request for an increase of LE100 million in the budget allocated to Cultural Palaces was, after all, categorically refused.
The regime must prioritise, Hosni points out. And even though the president fully appreciates the importance of the Cultural Palaces and the neglect to which they have been subject since the 1960s, it is not always possible to increase budget on demand -- "bread takes priority." A programme of renovations has in fact been underway for a whole decade, "but there are 450 of them and many are in pretty bad condition". To the charge that the ministry's funds are squandered on whimsical activities to which the vast majority of Egyptians cannot relate -- the Experimental Theatre Festival, for example -- Hosni angrily pointed out that to favour one kind of culture over another is to patronise and ultimately paralyse the initiative and creative impulse of the people: "it is not as if I transferred the Cultural Palaces budget to the Experimental Theatre Festival. They want to discontinue the festival? Sure, send me a petition signed by 400 -- no, 200 -- intellectuals approving this and I will do it."
Of all the criticism levelled at him in the last two weeks, however, did Hosni find anything valid or useful? "Well," he replies, "the campaign has created a map of the intellectual landscape -- which divides intellectuals into three groups. There are respectable intellectuals for, and respectable intellectuals against the ministry, then there are the pretend intellectuals -- noise without substance." Respecting difference and "honouring the other" are things he would seem to feel strongly about: "I challenge anyone to give me the name of a single intellectual who I've excluded or refused to meet. A minister of culture is a servant on the ground -- he does not own the ministry." As to the fate of his critics from within the Supreme Council of Culture (SCC) -- the issue being whether poet Abdel-Moeti Hegazi, having vehemently criticised Hosni, will continue to be on the SCC board -- Hosni speaks only of adjusting SCC regulations to stimulate dialogue and induce a more creative contribution from old and new members.
That the cinema -- once Egypt's second greatest industry, after cotton -- should have receded under his tenure is really none of the ministry's business, Hosni insists: "The cinema has been placed under the television, which controls the Media Production City. So why accuse the Ministry of Culture? Go, instead, to the people in charge. We do our bit by holding festivals and producing the occasional film -- and that's as much as we can do." Likewise with his own art, said to be bought by businessmen only: "Nonsense. Why would people who have nothing to do with culture buy my work just out of courtesy, to what end? And what about the sales I've made abroad? Does it matter there that I happen to be a minister?" Lost museum artefacts? "Surely they are in a curator's register -- once again investigations will reveal who is responsible." And secularism? "Culture is secular. We are neither Al-Azhar nor the Ministry of Endowments. And as to my refusal to establish a Ministry of Archaeology," he pre-empts me, "I just happen to think that archaeology is, being heritage, an essential aspect of the country's cultural profile. The other face of the same, valuable coin."