Farouk Hosny sees UNESCO as instrument to peace

Farouk Hosny has been Egypt’s minister of culture for more than 20 years. The prominent painter is a candidate for UNESCO director general. Photo by: Farouk Hosny

Days before UNESCO nominates its next leader, supposed front-runner Farouk Hosny is seeing no letup in denunciations of his candidature.

Hosny has been Egypt’s top official on cultural matters for more than two decades now. He established many of the country’s major art museums such as the Gezira Art Center in Cairo. An abstract painter, he served as director of the Egyptian Academy of Arts in Rome prior to assuming his current post.

But recently, the international Jewish group Simon Wiesenthal Center argued Egypt’s longtime culture minister would be “a major threat to the very values of UNESCO.” French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, along with filmmaker Claude Lanzmann and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, said Hosny’s past “contradicts point-for-point the ideals of the institution.”

The criticisms centered on Hosny’s May 2008 pledge that he would personally burn Israeli books found in Egyptian libraries. He apologized for his remark in a statement published on his Web site, explaining his suitability for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s top post.

In an e-mail Devex received from his adviser, Hosny struck a conciliatory tone in discussing his plans should he become UNESCO’s director general. The agency’s executive board is now in session to evaluate the candidates for the coveted post. Interviews will begin Sept. 15.

What do you see is UNESCO’s role and its significance in the United Nations system? What causes would you prioritize as UNESCO director general, and what strategic or organizational reforms would you push for?

UNESCO is meant to address peoples’ minds so that they think and act peace, and in that sense, it is the jewel of the UN system, cause there is nothing more noble and precious than laying the foundation of peace and respect of the other in minds, thoughts, and souls.

However, and that leads me to the second part of your question, UNESCO now is in deep need for a new strategic prioritization, both in prospectus and structure, for it to be able to face the societal and economical challenges of today, particularly with the advent of the financial and economic crisis.

Prioritizing is an impact seeking mechanism, hence, the Organization’s orientation should be steered to achieve the maximum impact with the resources available - scarce as it is - and that is not possible with the current mode of operandi [sic].

The vertical tracks of UNESCO should be horizontally synergized for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. Synergy is inherent in UNESCO’s vision: Culture is inseparable from education, science is not possible without both, and communication is what glues them all together. Hence, the horizontal dimension is not only a necessity, but a nature.

And that should be reflected structurally, in terms of delivery, field offices’ engagement, Integrated IT systems, objectives and incentives based practices, accessibility, accountability, etc. This is the reform that we seek, a grass root one, and it should capitalize on what was already achieved in the past.

What is the role of culture in the development of countries and peoples? Do governments sufficiently prioritize the conservation of cultural sites and heritage, and can you give an example of how UNESCO can support such efforts?

Culture is the ultimate product of humanity, and it is also its raw material. It is the humanity breathing in time and place. Hence, it is the manifestation of life itself.

Countries and peoples may differ in what they have or produce. Some may have something and others don’t, but they all share one thing that they all have: culture. Moreover, the World of today made cultures more accessible and available, hence the World’s cultural output is rising exponentially. And that represents a great development opportunity for all countries and peoples of the World, and Governments are becoming more and more aware of the opportunity at hand.

UNESCO should play an important role in this, not only as a think-tank or a catalyst, but in mobilization and animation. Culturally displacing the Continents of the World to each others is an idea of mine, and a multiple folded strategic plot targeted towards achieving: Reconciliation of Civilizations and Cultures, Revenue Generation for UNESCO, Income generation for destination and host countries, as well as giving the Organization the allure and impact it needs to augment its resources through donors, sponsors, and partners. It is intended to create a thrust and a global cultural movement leveraging culture as both an investment and a yield, giving Governments the measures and means of conserving and protecting their respective cultural sites and heritage, and letting the World cherish the diversity it so enjoys.

How does your experience as Egypt’s longtime cultural minister inform the way you approach education and peacemaking in various parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, where UNESCO and others are, of course, very active?

The Middle East is part of the reconciliation theme that I’m preaching, and possibly the drive for my thoughts of it. Belonging to a region that suffered from a prolonged Arab-Israeli conflict, with all its associated prejudices, misconceptions, and aggravated feelings, made me aware of the problems at hand, and it’s time for culture and education to play a parallel role to politics in order to resolve the conflict.

Belonging also to a country such as Egypt, peaceful by nature and example, with its great cultural diversity and cultural edifices’ manifestations of tolerance and coexistence, will enable me to broker for intellectual peace between the different parties; it is something that I couldn’t do on a national level for the very obvious reasons that I just mentioned. But from there, UNESCO I mean, it’ll be different. There, dialog could be instigated without having to deal with the national and regional sensitivities and hindrances.

In an interview you gave to an Italian newspaper some time ago, you stressed the importance of freedom of expression, saying you considered it sacred. As an artist and a government official, do you feel progress is being made in this sense in Egypt and in countries where freedom of speech is not always guaranteed? How should UNESCO help?

Egypt has taken long strides towards freedom of expression. Artistic and political manifestations are enjoying a very high degree of freedom, and with the exception of some very few cases - judicially ruled - almost anybody can say or act as he likes, as in Western country. Such process of democratization and transformation in Egypt will consecutively cause other countries to follow suit, and in my Vision for UNESCO - published - I said that democracy and human rights are indivisible, unseverable and non-negotiable.

What are the cornerstones of a good conservation strategy, and how would you weigh competing interests by stakeholders such as scientists, indigenous groups, national industries, multinational corporations, government, multilateral organizations, civil society, and so on?

A very good question, and the prescription to it all, is a workable vision, a win-win implementation, passion and perseverance.

The inhabitants and the social structure of the site at hand is the most important aspect of it all. They represent the real stakeholder, hence, the social dimension should be thoroughly studied. Compensation, benefits, relocation temporary or permanent, alternative planning, are all elements that should be studied carefully before hand.

Consensus should be sought, again based on a win-win formulae [sic]. If all cleared, and providing you have a good and you work it out technically and managerially in the best possible means, you will have a very smooth & successful implementation.

When I took the decision more than 10 years ago to restore and conserve Historic Cairo, everybody warned me against [it]. But I saw it and walked through it then, and it is now exactly as I imagined it. And it was the most difficult and the most fascinating task I ever accomplished, and the competing parties of yesterday, are the care takers of today.

Read our interviews with other UNESCO director general candidates Ivonne A-Baki and Sospeter Muhongo.

About the author

  • Tiziana Cauli

    Tiziana has contributed to Devex News since mid-2008, focusing mainly on Africa as well as the European donor landscape, especially those in Brussels, Rome and Barcelona. Tiziana has worked as a journalist for Reuters and the Associated Press in Johannesburg and at Reuters in Milan and Paris. She is fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish.