CAIRO: The defeat of Egypt’s longtime Culture Minister Farouk Hosni in the bid to head the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) commanded the attention of Egyptian intellectuals for the past few weeks. Indeed, the event deserved close scrutiny for it revealed, and confirmed, a number of important aspects of today’s Egypt.
First, the rift between the regime and the people is widening at an alarming rate in Egypt.
The UNESCO battle highlighted the distinction between “Egypt the regime and “Egypt the nation. Because of Hosni’s affiliation with the Egyptian regime, many Egyptians were, by sheer instinct, either uninterested in his bid, or wished he would lose the contest. Vehement attempts to evoke nationalist feelings failed to mitigate these anti-Hosni feelings.
Egyptian intellectuals in particular are disgruntled at the vital role Hosni has played in the country’s suffocating censorship bureaucracy. In the Washington Post, Mona Eltahawy – an award-winning Egyptian journalist based in New York – objected to Hosni’s bid on the grounds that he “has alienated many Egyptians by suffocating cultural and intellectual freedom while giving a leg up to religious zealotry.
Others considered him a symbol of the defunct Egyptian regime. Novelist Alaa Al-Aswani in Al-Shorouk saw Hosni as part of the authoritarian Egyptian regime. He argued that it was the regime that was defeated in Paris, not Egypt nor the Egyptian culture. It was the despotic regime that appointed him as minister of culture, kept him in this position for 22 years and enthusiastically backed him for the top position at UNESCO.
Secondly, the voting pattern of the UNESCO election shows that the current priorities of Egyptian foreign policy need to be revisited. Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East must be brought back into the heart of Egypt’s foreign policy.
In his manifesto, The Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser identified three circles of foreign policy activity: The Arab circle, the African circle and the Islamic circle. Egypt’s interest in the Arab world – and the Third World at large – was born out of this conviction. Egypt’s active participation in the founding of the Non-aligned movement, which became a major political bloc in international politics, was also a byproduct of this political blueprint.
Sadat’s restructuring of Egyptian politics in the 1970s, however, put an end to this outlook. The Western circle (the US and Europe) became the most important circle for Egyptian policymakers, unfortunately at the expense of strategic relations with Arabs and Africans. Interestingly, it was the bloc of Arab and African states that backed Hosni in the UNESCO race whereas the alliance of the US and Europe – Egypt’s formidable allies – brought him down.
True, the West is the major source of aid, weapons, technology, and information, but geostrategic realities are no less important. The recent discord between Egypt and the Nile Basin countries is an additional reminder of the need to pay more attention to Egypt’s strategic backyard.
Thirdly, the nationalist rhetoric that was so successful in the 20th century has become futile in the 21st century.
In Middle Eastern politics, the easiest and fastest way to garner support, and avoid blame, was to shout conspiracy. The chance of winning people over would be multiplied if that conspiracy was staged by “imperialism and “agents of Zionism. The authoritarian regimes of the Arab world realized that being targeted by Israel and the United States was bound to mobilize people behind them. Indeed, propaganda engagement with Israel is how these unpopular regimes have bolstered their rule in the face of huge legitimacy deficits.
Farouk Hosni resorted to the same technique. The first words he uttered following his failed drive for UNESCO were that it “was clear by the end of the competition 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.
But it did not work this time, for some essential facts could not be obscured. Chief among them is that lobbying, maneuvering and rigorous backroom negotiations is what elections are all about. It is the same kind of lobbying that secured 29 votes for Hosni in the semi-final round of voting. Old rhetoric obviously lost its appeal and turned into an obsolete weapon that backfired in Hosni’s face.
Faced with an aging regime, using old-fashioned rhetoric and relying on a fixed set of alliances that need to be revisited, one is compelled to underscore that change in Egypt is no longer an option; it’s a necessity.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo. He could be reached at: [email protected]