Hosni makes no apology
Culture Minister Farouk Hosni's meeting with MPs almost degenerated into chaos but it was the minister, most agreed, who in the end prevailed over his critics, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
On Sunday Culture Minister Farouk Hosni appeared to have emerged victorious from the two-week controversy that ensued after his comments concerning the prevalence of veiling among women were widely reported.
Hosni appeared before a joint meeting of the Culture and Religious Affairs Committees, attended by Parliamentary Speaker Fathi Sorour and Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab. While Sorour did his best to protect Hosni from the wrath of Muslim Brotherhood MPs, Shehab attempted to diffuse the tension his comments had provoked among some NDP members.
From the start of the meeting it was clear Hosni was in no mood to be intimidated by Brotherhood MPs. He refused to apologise for his remarks about the veil and criticised those "sheikhs that appear on satellite television channels to deliver religious edicts that aren't worth threepence".
"The hijab (veil) I attacked is one imported from countries with religious identities and attitudes different from those in Egypt," said Hosni, adding that "countries such as Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia have different forms of hijab and they reflect specific religious ideologies."
"I am afraid," he argued, "that the hijabs coming from these three countries will in the end turn into an ideology."
"What about Egypt, a great country that has been exporting moderate Islam to other countries. Is it acceptable that Egypt import forms of hijab that reflect extremist religious ideologies and come from countries which aim to disseminate these ideologies in Egypt?" he asked.
"The forms of hijab coming from these countries reflect a state of backwardness because Egypt's civilisation and heritage of culture is far ahead of the countries from where they originate," he said, concluding that that was what he meant by the words "wearing the hijab is a sign of regression."
He had not, he made clear, come to the meeting to "offer an apology or deny what I said".
"All I want to explain is that what I said was not a public press statement but an informal chat on the telephone with a female journalist. This is why it caused a lot of misunderstanding. I can't say such words in public although I meant them when I said them, referring to a certain form of hijab and particular kinds of sheikhs.
"There is a difference between public statements and personal convictions. What I said on the phone was a personal conviction which I do not deny and will not apologise for," he said. "A basic part of my job [as culture minister] is to ring alarm bells when I see the infiltration of extremist forms of dress and behaviour in this country."
The meeting drew more than 500 MPS, with many forced to stand. Brotherhood MPs had arrived early, in an attempt to ensure they could all sit together.
Hosni said he had been greatly disappointed by the Assembly session in which he came under sustained attack by both Brotherhood and NDP MPs. "What I found most worrying is that I know well many of the MPs who attacked me, having met most of them in my office," he told the meeting. Yet none of them, he added, had bothered to pick up the phone and ask for a response to what had been published.
Hosni told the meeting that since he came to office, more than 500 books about "authentic Islam" had been published by the Culture Ministry. "In six years," he said, "more than 146 Islamic monuments -- or 20 per cent of the total Islamic architectural heritage -- had been restored and refurbished."
Hosni arrived at the meeting with two large cardboard boxes full of books. "They deal with religious enlightenment," he told the assembled MPs, and he was presenting them to the People's Assemby as a gift.
After more than half an hour of explanation, Parliamentary Speaker Fathi Sorour asked Hosni three questions: "Does the ministry have a cultural policy against the hijab ? Does the ministry urge Egyptian women not to wear the hijab ? Have you issued any decisions against wearing the veil?"
"The ministry has no cultural policy against the veil," Hosni replied. "But it is my ministry's duty to explain to people the dangers of importing extremist codes of dress from Bedouin and desert communities or from countries such as Iran and Afghanistan."
"Come to the ministry and you will find that a large number of female staff there wear the veil, including my personal secretary," he said. Adopting a policy against the hijab, added the minister, "would be crazy. Let me clearly state that I respect Egyptian women whether or not they wear the hijab."
Following Hosni's responses, NDP MPs rallied to his support.
Alaa Hassanein, NDP MP for the Upper Egyptian Governorate of Minya, said Hosni had been courageous "to emphasise his respect for women whether or not they wore the hijab as well as refusing to deny his conversation with the journalist".
Bahaa Aboul Hamd, an NDP MP from Luxor, thought Hosni "very honest in clearing any misunderstanding about what he said about the hijab ".
El-Sayed Askar, Brotherhood MP for the Delta Governorate of Gharbiya, was less happy, accusing Hosni of "directly insulting veiled women".
"The minister made a contemptuous remark about a religious and a Qur'anic decree, and that his response has been a kind of escape," shouted Askar, who also questioned Hosni's motives in forming a religious committee within the Ministry of Culture.
"By creating the committee he aims to draw the rug from under the feet of Al-Azhar and other religious institutions. He wants that the Ministry of Culture bear the sole responsibility for issuing certain edicts on religious matters," Askar claimed.
Hosni responded by saying that the committee he had suggested would have been tasked with conducting a dialogue on religious matters rather than issuing religious edicts but he had in any case changed his mind about it.
When Hosni, in turn, accused Askar of "intentionally distorting facts" the Muslim Brotherhood MPs took the statement as a cue to begin to demand he apologise. They were joined by NDP MP for Minya, Karam El-Hafyan, who two weeks ago said he would resign from parliament if Hosni refused to apologise. El-Hafyan appeared to faint in a fit of hysteria and was taken to the Assembly's medical unit for treatment.
A second NDP MP, Yasser El-Lahami, tried to physically assault Hosni while a third, Mohamed El-Omda, circulated a paper in which he accused the ministries of culture and information of spreading "an American agenda of liberal Western values in Egypt". El-Omda said he had filed a complaint with the prosecutor- general, demanding intervention to save Egypt and the Islamic world from "the war which America and the Egyptian regime leads against Islamic values and identity".
Sorour intervened to save the meeting from total collapse, saying it was now clear the minister had not promoted policies against the hijab and that he has "complete respect" for veiled women. It was, said Sorour, time to draw a line under the matter.