On September 23, Farouq Husni lost a close vote for the post of head of the UN cultural and educational body, UNESCO, to the Bulgarian Irina Bokova. Husni, the sitting minister of culture in Egypt, had become the “controversial” contender for the position, his candidacy marred by accusations of anti-Semitism. His narrow defeat came after months of high-level negotiations, sparring in the international press and an intense debate in Egypt and the Arab world over the emotionally loaded subject of “normalization” with Israel.

UNESCO was founded in 1945 to “build peace in the minds of men” by raising educational levels and supporting cultural and intellectual exchange among UN member states. The organization is perhaps best known for its efforts to catalogue and save World Heritage sites — its most famous effort, in Egypt, is the dramatic relocation of the Pharaonic temples at Abu Simbel, threatened by the creation of Lake Nasser behind the Aswan High Dam. Farouq Husni has been culture minister for 22 years, and as such has collaborated with UNESCO on many projects, such as the Nubian Museum in Aswan, and the Museum of National Egyptian Civilization under construction in one of Cairo’s oldest districts.

Husni’s campaign to lead UNESCO was proceeding smoothly until the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Israeli Foreign Ministry expressed grave concern over statements he had made in the past. These remarks were highlighted in an open letter published by Le Monde on May 21, penned by film director Claude Lanzmann, intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. The letter quotes Husni as saying that “Israel has never contributed to civilization in any era, for it has only appropriated the contributions of others,” and that Israel has been “aided” by “the infiltration of Jews into the international media.” It also references an exchange that took place in the Egyptian parliament in 2008, in which an MP claimed there were Israeli books in the Alexandria Library and Husni reportedly countered: “Burn those books; if there are any there, I will burn them myself in front of you.” The letter averred that “Mr. Farouk Hosny is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue and culture; Mr. Farouk Hosny is a dangerous man, an inciter of hearts and minds” and called on “all countries dedicated to liberty and culture to take the initiatives necessary to avert this threat and avoid the disaster that would be his nomination.”

Husni responded with a letter of his own, defending himself and focusing in particular on the exchange in Parliament. “I was expressing angry feelings at what is happening to an entire population [the Palestinians] deprived of its land and rights,” he wrote. “Although the words themselves are charged with extreme cruelty, they should be seen in context.” Nonetheless, Husni continued that he regretted what he had said. “Nothing is more abhorrent to me than racism, rejection of the other or a desire to discredit any human culture, including the Jewish culture.” The discussion in the world press centered around Husni’s vow to burn Israeli books. In interviews, Husni offered several justifications: that the remark was taken out of context; that it was entirely rhetorical (he did not really mean to follow through); and that it escaped his lips when he was provoked by an affiliate of the Muslim Brothers. (Skirmishes between the Ministry of Culture and Islamist elements are standard in Egyptian political life, and Husni is a bête noire of the Islamist bloc in Parliament.)

Yet while trying to assuage the international community’s fears regarding anti-Semitism, Husni also had to allay the very different anxieties of Egyptian artists and intellectuals, who feared that in his UNESCO bid, the minister was compromising what has become a near fundamental principle of Egyptian cultural life: boycott of Israel and avoidance of anything smacking of “normal” relations with the Jewish state or its citizens. Husni’s remark about book burning has been widely condemned in Egypt — everyone can see that it was, to say the least, an embarrassing choice of words for a minister of culture. But the words are not as shocking here as they are abroad, because almost everyone agrees that there should not, in fact, be Israeli books in Egyptian libraries.

A Political Stance

When President Anwar al-Sadat made peace with Israel in 1979, he flew in the face of domestic public opinion. Opposition among the country’s cultural elite quickly crystallized in the form of the Committee for the Defense of National Culture, established by the author Latifa al-Zayyat. Professional associations and syndicates passed boycott resolutions, proscribing their members — journalists, filmmakers, authors — from traveling to Israel or participating in any events with Israeli counterparts. For the cultural class (muthaqqafin) of Egypt, this refusal of “normalization” is one way they can register their anger at Sadat’s conclusion of a peace that excluded the Palestinians and other Arabs and, more so, at the violence and intransigence of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands.

This blanket ban on cultural contact with Israel has survived nearly intact to this day — even as many Arab countries, including Egypt, have moved toward greater political and commercial normalization. Egypt is at one with Israel on security issues such as the containment of Hamas in Gaza. Egyptian businessmen have no problem doing business with Israel, whether in the Qualified Industrial Zones in Egypt churning out products with a mandated percentage of Israeli input or through the call centers where young Egyptians take calls (in Hebrew) from Israeli customers. [1] In fact, as Wassim Al-Adel argues, the Arab world has moved, over the decades, from adamant rejection of Israel to a “growing culture of numbness and complicity,” particularly on the economic level. “Arab governments can no longer be, if ever they were, considered reliable champions of the boycott.” [2]

Meanwhile, attempts to organize widespread boycotts of global brands such as Coca-Cola or McDonald’s that do business in Israel tend to peak at times of general indignation — during the first and second intifadas, for example — and then fizzle over time. Such efforts are weakened by the lack of a single coordinating body, the long list of possible targets and the counter-argument that boycotts hurt Egyptian workers more than anyone else. Direct activism is severely curtailed, with convoys of aid to Gaza, for example, often blocked or tightly monitored. But Egyptian muthaqqafin have clung to the language and practice of anti-normalization, with a vehemence that often seems directly proportional to their powerlessness to affect government policy.

As minister of culture, Husni has supported — or at least gone along with — the cultural boycott of Israel. In an interview, he said: “Normalization isn’t a decision of the minister. It’s a global, collective decision on the part of all intellectuals and creators. I personally am not against cultural normalization. I’m against choosing the current time to start. It has to be after the establishment of peace between Israel and Palestine.” [3] In fact, much of the international criticism of Husni stems from his adherence to the anti-normalization stance. Ha’aretz has described Husni as “an extreme anti-Israel Egyptian official” [4]; as Mona Anis wrote in al-Ahram Weekly, “Israel and its friends have decided to consider him the prime instigator against Arab-Israeli cultural cooperation.” [5] (In fact, after meeting Egyptian President Husni Mubarak in May, and no doubt as part of an unknown quid pro quo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would no longer oppose Husni’s nomination.)

Several of Husni’s critics have found it convenient to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, conflating support for a boycott with anti-Jewish prejudice. This elision is accomplished in an article in Foreign Policy that argues — without a single supporting quote — that Husni’s statements exemplify the “rampant Judeophobia” of Egypt’s cultural elite, while dismissing solidarity for the Palestinian people as a factor in attitudes toward Israel here. [6] Similarly, a September New York Times article opened with the flat assertion that “Egyptians generally do not make the distinction between Jewish people and Israelis. Israelis are the enemy, so Jews are, too.” [7] While there is certainly anti-Semitism in Egypt — and that anti-Semitism may be exacerbated by the lack of interaction with Jews and Jewish culture to which the boycott contributes — many Egyptians are perfectly able, and eager, to articulate the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

The focus on anti-Semitism (Husni’s or otherwise) obfuscates the fact that the cultural boycott of Israel is a political stance, one of the only avenues available to Egyptian intellectuals for expressing disapproval of Israeli actions in the Occupied Territories. Supporters of Israel argue that the boycott is a form of censorship or bigotry. But the Israeli state itself has injected politics into its cultural initiatives. It reportedly requires the artists it funds to sign a statement committing them to “promote the policy interests of the state of Israel via culture and art, including contributing to creating a positive image for Israel.” [8] Israeli officials have been prominently quoted saying they will launch a cultural public relations campaign, to “show Israel’s prettier face, so we are not thought of purely in the context of war.” [9]


Husni’s support for the boycott has been one of the few issues on which he has seen eye to eye with Egyptian intellectuals and artists — even though, like many of his positions, it seems dictated as much by political expediency as by personal conviction. Although, for example, Husni tends to present himself as a champion of a free speech and a bulwark against Islamists and their attacks on “immoral” culture, he has quite often acquiesced to their demands — when not engaging in censorship on his own initiative, arguing, “Sometimes creativity surpasses all limits, so who’s supposed to guard the people? There are agreed-upon limits of freedom, and the artist must abide by the limits of society.” [10] The minister’s long history of political opportunism is one reason why many in Egypt became concerned that in the process of campaigning for UNESCO, as Anis put it, he was preparing to “hand over the last card in his possession” to Israel. Egyptian intellectuals feared the principle of anti-normalization would be sacrificed to appease the minister’s Western critics and advance his UNESCO aspirations.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2009, the Egyptian press was in a tizzy over signs that Husni was softening toward Israel. First there was the invitation of the Israeli Daniel Barenboim to conduct at the Cairo Opera House in April. (Barenboim supports a Palestinian state and founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with the late Edward Said.) Then, in June, Agence France Presse reported that the National Translation Center would be translating works by the Israeli historian Benny Morris and novelists David Grossman and Amos Oz, [11] a story that was quickly and angrily picked up by the local press. The head of the center, the critic Gabir ‘Asfour, explained that the works would be translated from English or French editions, rather than the original Hebrew versions, so as to pay no royalties to Israeli publishers and authors. But this did not pacify critics such as Sabri Hafiz, who wrote in the literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab: “Does changing the nationality of the agent, by making it a European publisher, justify forming a contract with…a Zionist writer who chose to settle the land of another through force?” [12] There were also reports that Husni was pressuring the organizers of the Red Sea Festival (held in Suez in July) to invite Israeli participants. In the end, Israel did not participate, and the festival’s coordinator — who had been quoted pledging not to bow to ministerial pressure — “resigned.”

Husni’s damage control agenda was clear — officials from his ministry even held a press conference highlighting the restoration of ancient synagogues in Cairo. But none of the above examples necessarily portend a move toward normalization. The brouhaha, however, is typical. Boycotts have to be maintained and enforced, and a great amount of energy in Egypt goes into shaming and attacking those who are perceived to have betrayed a shared principle. All too often, this self-policing can seem petty. In the summer of 2007, the young actor ‘Amr Wakid was threatened with expulsion from the actors’ syndicate — thus being banned from ever working in Egypt again — because of his participation in an international TV production, “House of Saddam” by HBO Films, that also featured an Israeli actor. In August, a mini-scandal erupted when the famed cartoonist Bahgouri travelled to Ramallah with other artists for an initiative called “Cartoons for Peace,” and also spent a day in Tel Aviv. The debate over whether the cartoonist had engaged in normalization came to hinge on whether he had stepped out of the tour bus or not.

Anxiety over possible moves toward normalization is a constant of Egyptian cultural life. In 2008, Nadia Kamal began screening her documentary Salata Baladi (House Salad) around Cairo, and quickly caused a furor. The film was an exploration of Kamal’s far-flung, heterogeneous family and focused on her mother — an Italian-Egyptian Jew who married an Egyptian Muslim, converted to Islam, and was a Communist and pro-Palestinian activist, serving jail time for her political beliefs. In the film, Naila Kamal decides — after much agonized deliberation, and with the encouragement of a Palestinian friend and of her daughter — to visit a Jewish cousin who left Cairo when they were both teenagers and now lives in Tel Aviv. The Kamal family’s trip to Israel led to charges that the film was “pro-normalization” and to Kamal being attacked in the press and convoked by the filmmakers’ syndicate for an investigation. She refused the summons.

In an interview in 2008, Kamal said: “I think the reason most of the people are accusing me of pro-normalization is that they just didn’t think about it a lot. They don’t have a definition of normalization. They don’t have a definition of boycott. They think they are two opposite sides: If you normalize, you don’t boycott; if you boycott, then you’re not normalizing. Boycott is a way of resistance. It’s a tool. You can boycott, you can make war, you can make a demonstration, you can sign a petition. It’s a tool, not a principle, not a lifestyle, not an attitude.… Normalizing is when you see injustice happening and you just give a cold shoulder to the victim or a blind eye to the whole process. When you just agree to go on with business as usual. Engaging with the Israelis or with the Jews or with the Zionists — engaging in a war or in a discussion — is not normalization.”

Kamal is in the minority, but is not entirely alone in suggesting that Egypt’s three-decade cultural boycott of Israel is in need of reevaluation. Asked about Bahgouri’s trip to Israel and the Occupied Territories, several Egyptian colleagues defended him, pointing out that his trip was part of an internal initiative to promote peace and that the content of the works he presented was critical of Israel. [13] Gamal al-Ghitani, the novelist and editor of Akhbar al-Adab, has defended the effort to translate Israeli books, pointing out that it was undertaken in the 1960s (as part of a series entitled “Know Your Enemy”) and that the likes of Ghassan Kanafani and ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Massiri had compiled scholarly works on Hebrew literature and Judaism, respectively. [14] Regarding the tumult surrounding Husni’s alleged moves toward normalization, al-Ghitani wrote of “an unprecedented atmosphere of demagoguery, which makes necessary an objective stance from the cultural community, to define the ideas and foundations on which anti-normalization is based.” He has also said: “We need to discuss normalization again — our position has become unclear. There is something like a Palestinian country in Ramallah and Gaza — what is the position of Arab intellectuals toward travel to these regions? What about dealing with Arab Israelis?” [15]

Sorts of Boycott

The boycott, as currently articulated, bars Egyptians from visiting the Occupied Territories (a self-restriction that quite suits the Egyptian security services, which is loath to allow such travel in any case). As Elliott Colla has pointed out in these pages, the boycott strategy has “cut off links between Egyptians and the very Palestinians whose cause they champion.” [16] Not only do Egyptian activists and intellectuals have few opportunities to coordinate with their Palestinian counterparts, the discussion of boycott strategy among Egyptians is also quite narrowly delimited. In Egypt today there is not so much a discussion of the boycott as a constant reiteration of a fixed position. Articles on the subject all seem to have the same headline, a simple declaration: “Normalization is rejected.” Colla has also pointed out how “most of anti-normalization’s successes are counted negatively” — in trips not taken, invitations rejected. Adhering to the boycott — maintaining one’s ideological purity — is often seen as enough. This is in great part because other forms of solidarity — setting up aid convoys to Gaza, organizing widespread commercial boycotts, picketing a Qualified Industrial Zone — would entail great effort and attract the hostile attention of the authorities, who are showing less and less tolerance for any form of active solidarity with the Palestinians. In fact, the boycott — which is mainly maintained through state-licensed professional syndicates — operates in a tightly constrained political space, tolerated and even championed by government officials because it is a cost-free way of paying lip service to the Palestinian cause. It suffers from the same atrophy that has infected Egyptian political life at large.

More is the pity, since an international, Palestinian-led academic and cultural boycott movement has been gaining momentum. Launched in April 2004, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) calls upon intellectuals and academics worldwide to “comprehensively and consistently boycott all Israeli academic and cultural institutions as a contribution to the struggle to end Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of apartheid.” In July 2005, almost 200 Palestinian associations and organizations signed the Palestinian Civil Society Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

The movement has been involved in a number of high-profile actions, from pressuring international artists not to perform in Israel to targeting particular events organized by Israeli institutions. Over the summer, PACBI supported a protest of the Toronto International Film Festival’s decision to spotlight the city of Tel Aviv in its program. The many well-known signatories to the “Toronto Declaration: No Celebration of Occupation” wrote that the Festival “whether intentionally or not, has become complicit in the Israeli propaganda machine.”

PACBI issues (and occasionally revises) its own boycott guidelines; it currently suggests, for example, that all events or works funded by official Israeli institutions and ones that “promote false symmetry or ‘balance’” be eschewed. The guidelines can be debated — and, in fact, one suspects that the main achievement of PACBI for some time to come will be simply to start debates — but the important point is that the boycott as articulated here is context-specific, taking into consideration the funding, aims, framework and content of each event. This sort of boycott is also open to progressive Israeli participants—and has indeed been embraced by some, such as Neve Gordon, a professor at Ben Gurion University who penned an op-ed entitled “Boycott Israel.” [17]

The Palestinian boycott is shaped by different factors from those that affect Arab neighbors such as Egypt. Palestinians have never been able to boycott Israel entirely — a fact acknowledged at the 2008 Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network conference in Ramallah, dedicated to promoting the broader boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign of which PACBI is a part. Participants agreed that Palestinians should only be asked to boycott Israeli products for which local alternatives were available, and that they could not be expected to avoid working in Israel. Many Palestinian organizations also have experience working side by side with Israelis, engaging in joint activism such as the protests against the separation wall in the West Bank village of Bil‘in.

At the same time, Palestinian civil society has been scarred by the anodyne “people-to-people” projects that proliferated after the Oslo agreements of 1993. Millions of international aid dollars were spent to promote activities that would bring Palestinians and Israelis together, to learn “dialogue” and “tolerance.” But many of these projects perpetuated the very asymmetries of power that bedeviled, and eventually killed, the “peace process” of the Oslo years. Palestinian organizations are accordingly cautious about legitimizing Israel through forms of cooperation that focus on “reconciliation” between two seemingly equal sides. Today, most of those involved in the BDS campaign insist that a prerequisite for joint activities is an explicit acknowledgement that in Israel-Palestine there is “a situation where there is an oppressor and an oppressed, a colonizer and a colonized.” [18]

At the meeting of the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network, it was pointed out that Palestinians have engaged in various boycotts since the 1920s. [19] Bringing a boycott to fruition is extremely difficult, demanding constant coordination and adaptation. The concern over Farouq Husni’s suspected capitulation on the boycott issue shows how important engaging in some form of solidarity with the Palestinian people remains for the Egyptian cultural class. Joining the global conversation over what normalization consists of and how best to fight it might help Egyptian intellectuals and artists channel their anxiety in more productive directions.


[1] L’Express, August 15, 2009.
[2] Wassim Al-Adel, “How Arab Normalization Is Undermining the Boycott Movement,” Electronic Intifada, August 29, 2008.
[3] Ursula Lindsey, “Culture Clashes,” The National, September 6, 2009.
[4] Ha’aretz, May 27, 2009.
[5] Mona Anis, “Why Can’t an Arab Be More Like an Israeli?” al-Ahram Weekly, July 2-8, 2009.
[6] Raymond Stock, “Very, Very Lost in Translation,” Foreign Policy, September 2009.
[7] New York Times, September 7, 2009.
[8] Yitzhak Laor, “Putting Out a Contract on Art,” Ha’aretz, July 31, 2008.
[9] New York Times, March 19, 2009.
[10] Hossam Bahgat, “Cultural House of Cards,” Cairo Times, January 18-24, 2001.
[11] Agence France Presse, June 11, 2009.
[12] Sabri Hafiz, “A Salute to al-Aswani and a Rebuke to ‘Asfour,” Akhbar al-Adab, June 21, 2009.
[13] Riham Mahmoud, “Normalization in the Name of Art,” al-Muhit.com (September 2009).
[14] Gamal al-Ghitani, “Hubbub!” Akhbar al-Adab, June 21, 2009.
[15] Lindsey, op cit.
[16] Elliott Colla, “Solidarity in the Time of Anti-Normalization,” Middle East Report 224 (Fall 2002).
[17] Neve Gordon, “Boycott Israel,” Los Angeles Times, August 20, 2009.
[18] Faris Giacaman, “Can We Talk? The Middle East Peace Industry,” Electronic Intifada, August 20, 2009.
[19] Andréa Schmidt, “BDS Conference in Palestine: Building Solidarity, Combating Normalization,” Left Turn, April 9, 2008.

How to cite this article:

Ursula Lindsey "Normalization Politics on the Nile," Middle East Report 253 (Winter 2009).

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