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Let's Not Put UNESCO in the Hands of a Culture Cop

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Thursday, September 17, the 58 voting countries will say whether or not they will designate as the head of UNESCO a man who is now famous for having promised to burn with his own hands any book written in Hebrew that might have slipped, despite the Islamists' vigilance, into the stacks of the Alexandria Library.

This man's name is Farouk Hosni.

Together with Claude Lanzmann and Elie Wiesel, I brought his nauseating declarations to the attention of the opinion pages in Europe (Le Monde on May 22, 2009) and America (The Huffington Post on May 25, 2009).

And this arsonist of books and souls having thrown himself since then into an electoral campaign whose frenzy is equaled only by its ability to produce deliberate disinformation, I want to respond, before it's too late, to some of the arguments proffered, perhaps out of good faith, by those who resign themselves to his election.

First argument. Farouk Hosni has "apologized" for his comments. This is false. Because, other than the fact that his apology letter was, as we know today, drafted in part by someone else (the French presidential speechwriter and adviser Henri Guaino), he took back none of the offending words and instead blamed them on a too-fiery temperament.

Second argument. Farouk Hosni is a tactician trying to outsmart his true enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood party. This is a joke. Because other than the fact that the Egypt for which he has been the Minister of Culture for the past 22 years is a country where no intellectual work can be made public without having the required permit from the religious authorities of the al-Azhar Theological Institute, there are a multitude of cases where it is he, the Minister, who took the lead and argued for an "offense to Islam" in order to sanction a film (L'Immeuble Yacoubian), a book (Nawal al-Saadawi's 2001 autobiography), poems (the 2007 affair of the journal Ibdaa whose removal from the shelves provoked an embarrassed and semi-apologetic statement from the al-Azhar religious authorities who weren't even asking for that!).

Third argument. Farouk Hosni is Egyptian and rejecting him would anger the great country of Egypt. That's the height of bad faith. Because if it is true that this man is backed by the autocrat whose glory he has slavishly praised for decades, he is obviously not supported by the other Egypt, the only one that counts because it is that of creators and artists. Those who doubt this should think of the director Khaled Youssef whose screenplay for his latest film Moment of Weakness was just censured on the grounds that it treated the subject of virginity before marriage. They should get hold of Magdy al Shafee's comic strip that the "Vice Brigade" in charge of clamping down on "attacks on morality" has taken off the market under the pretext that it contained a caption that said, "In this country, it is the poor that go to prison." The representatives of the States who vote next Monday should, before making their choice, study the case of at least some of the innumerable authors that Farouk Hosni and his minions have persecuted these last years. I have the list for anyone who wants it -- Mr. Kouchner and Mr. Sarkozy, for example.

The question, from this point on, is simple.

Are we going to entrust the reins of a global cultural agency to a man who, when he hears the word "culture," reaches for his scissors and lighter?

Can we put at the head of an organization devoted to the defense of the principles of freedom of opinion and expression the minister of a country who, during his reign, obtained a rank of 146 out of 173 on the (dubious) award list of Reporters without Borders -- and who, as if that weren't enough, just threw himself into the pursuit of bloggers, Facebook users, and other Internet surfers that is as stupid as it is savage (as fate would have it, his assumption of his new duties would coincide with the promulgation in Egypt of a law he pushed for that affixes prison terms for "abuses of Internet use" -- [sic])?

And then are we, under the pretext that he would represent the South or the Arab World, going to give the World Heritage Committee to a man who, when he was responsible for his national heritage, saw three of his direct associates, plus his former chief of staff, heavily punished for getting mixed up in trafficking in Egypt's archeological treasures?

I have too high an opinion of the country of Naguib Mahfouz and of the temples of Abu Simbel -- I also value too greatly the demands of the North-South dialogue -- to accept this kind of reasoning.

For sure it is already late.

Perhaps we needed Morocco to stand by the candidature of Aziza Bennani, or Brazil by that of Gilberto Gil, or maybe we needed the Algerian jurist Mohamed Bedjaoui to be supported by his country.

But this is not the time for empty regrets. And, at the point where we are, there is only one urgency for those who, in Europe and elsewhere, do not want to see the noble imperative of dialogue between civilizations and cultures (and for those who also rejoiced to see UNESCO's image more or less restored), derailed: let's block the road for a man whose past contradicts point-for-point the ideals of the institution.

Translated from French by Sara Phenix.