Egypt's former culture minister paints and hopes

No court has found Farouk Hosny guilty of any wrongdoing as a cabinet minister during Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule, yet he still chooses his words carefully.

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CAIRO // As the world he knew was overturned during the 2011 uprising against the regime of Hosni Mubarak and the investigations that followed, Farouk Hosny sought solace in painting.

Mr Hosny, 73, served as Mubarak's culture minister for 23 years but says he is now "free as never before", even though he has come under scrutiny from the new government for his links to the previous regime.

No court has found him guilty of any wrongdoing as a cabinet minister during Mubarak's 29-year rule, yet he chooses his words carefully. Many Egyptians are frustrated that men such as Mr Hosny have not been brought to book in a new, democratic Egypt, so he avoids robust remarks about the Islamist government out of concern that fresh charges may be levelled against him.

"I consider my art like a child is playing with colours," he says in an interview at his office and studio on the upscale island of Zamalek in Cairo as light violin music plays in the background. "When I am painting, I am escaping, becoming a young soul. I am not affected or polluted by outside events of the atmosphere … Art comes from the heart, even if the mind is occupied."

But even that meditative process has been interrupted over the past few months as Mr Hosny was forced to defend himself against claims by the government's corruption investigators that his life savings were derived from illegal activity. The Illicit Gains Authority said his net worth of nine million Egyptian pounds (Dh4.98m) came from embezzlement, but a court acquitted him of all charges on January 5 after finding no evidence that he had broken the law. Mr Hosny maintains that his assets were earned through sales of his paintings and legitimate investments.

A one-time frontrunner for director-general of Unesco, Mr Hosny stepped down in March 2011, just weeks after Mubarak resigned, and fled to Sharm El Sheikh.

He recalls Mubarak's myopia during the final days of his regime, particularly a "peculiar phone call" on January 29, 2011. The streets were seething and the ruling National Democratic Party had all but collapsed. Despite the situation, Mubarak rang him to ask about the Cairo book fair scheduled to open that day.

"How is the exhibition going?" the president asked.

Mr Hosny, taking a moment, replied that "there is a revolution going on … Nobody will attend".

Mubarak then asked if it should instead be opened on January 30.

"He had the impression that things were under control," Mr Hosny says.

Two years after the uprising against Mubarak began, Mr Hosny is delving into painting again. Like his chosen style - abstract - his comments about the country are deliberately vague. The reason, his press aide suggested, is that Egypt's polarised atmosphere means that any direct comments - especially any that are critical of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government - could result in new accusations and investigations. Therefore, Mr Hosny requested that the interview touched only on human and artistic subjects.

Yet he repeatedly veers back to veiled descriptions of fears for his country's future and a clash of emotions over the nature of the uprising against his former boss.

"I am inspired by the youth of this country," he says. "I love the madness and revolution of the youth, their sense of adventure and their guts."

But, he adds, "there is a distinction between the act of revolution, which is artistic, and the consequences of a revolution".

He readily admits a relationship of mutual appreciation with Mubarak and calls the former first lady, Suzanne, a great patron of the arts.

"The problem was they were turning Egypt into a monarchy," he says.

The past two years have been racked by political battles and the rise of followers of political Islam into the highest echelons of government. The streets have erupted in new battles dozens of times over the nature of Egypt's transition. The conclusion, Mr Hosny says, has not been decided but to him it is an example of the difference between the abstract and the real.

"In Egypt, we dream better than we realise our dreams," Mr Hosny says.

He sits on a couch in his brightly lit office on the ground floor of a building set in an immaculate garden with a heavy-set golden retriever running around. The walls are covered by his paintings and several originals of Egyptian peasants by Mahmoud Said, the famed modern artist from Alexandria.

A caricature on the wall highlights Mr Hosny's defining features: a broad smile that forces his eyes to nearly close, big bookish glasses and a wave of black hair reminiscent of the style worn by a mid-20th-century intellectual.

Looking back over his years as the minister of culture, he cites his accomplishments: 42 museums established, 125 libraries built, and the groundwork laid for "mega projects" that would change the face of culture in Egypt for years to come. His Grand Egyptian Museum - a sprawling, 50-hectare salute to the country's ancient history - is still under construction and is expected to be finished sometime in 2015.

Yet, he calls these successes "islands" amid the huge, dysfunctional bureaucracy that existed under the Mubarak regime and continued after his departure. The country failed to "prepare high-calibre politicians who have the understanding of how to invest in our natural wealth", he says, beginning a long inventory of Egypt's lakes, seafronts and deserts.

"Not the old nor the current regimes have shown a grasp of the potential of Egypt as a great country and what could be made of it."

Avoiding specifics, Mr Hosny says he is worried about Egypt's cultural path ahead.

"I am afraid about art in Egypt. Every phase has its vision and its evaluation of what art is and how to realise it. There will be art in the future, but not in the way we know it. Art is an energy. It has to get out. In what way, we don't know."