'Egypt is one of the freest states in the entire Arab world'


MARY FITZGERALDtalks to the director of Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Ismail Serageldin, who was in Dublin to receive an honorary degree

ISMAIL SERAGELDIN is often referred to as something of a Renaissance man. After a stellar career at the World Bank, the erudite polymath and prolific writer returned to his native Egypt to become director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, an imposing research and cultural complex inspired by Alexandria’s famed library of antiquity.

In Dublin this week, Serageldin spoke about relations between the West and Muslim majority countries like his own. He said the recent Swiss vote to ban minarets should not be blown out of proportion, and stressed the need to prevent such issues from driving a deep wedge between communities. “You have people who are invested in trying to promote the clash of civilisations . . . They pounce on examples of potential disagreements and clashes to highlight those rather than examples of collaboration . . . Regretfully, the people who do that on both sides are stoking the fires of enmity.”

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina recently hosted an international conference on Charles Darwin – no mean feat in a country and region where his theories are largely treated with suspicion if not downright hostility.

“Darwin has been a lightning rod for attracting anger and frustration from people who are somehow convinced that science is a threat to them and their belief systems,” Serageldin says. “But science and religion, in my judgment, have no conflict.

“In every society you have religious people who are literalists. They just do not understand scripture in its broader appeal, and in its call to humanity as a whole to reflect, meditate, and see the higher truth.”

Egypt faces many challenges, including widespread poverty, declining standards in education and the growing popularity of more austere interpretations of Islam. Critics of the autocratic Mubarak regime blame many of these ills on a government they consider venal and corrupt. Serageldin says the country’s secular opposition remains weak because of the poor quality of its discourse. But surely that is the result of it having little political space to breathe?

“No, I don’t think so. Egypt is one of the freest societies in the entire Arab world – look at the number of newspapers . . . This talk of Egypt as a terrible police state and so on is just not borne out by the facts,” he says. “Yes, there are terrible examples of specific cases . . . there are things that I think should not have been done by the security forces and so on, but look at the enormous expansion in the last 10-15 years in terms of the space and freedom allocated to people to talk about almost anything they want.” The real issue is the “self-appointed thought police who have given themselves the right to decide what other people can see, hear or read”.

He describes as unfortunate the controversy over Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni’s unsuccessful bid to be the first Arab director general of Unesco earlier this year. In a heated 2008 parliamentary discussion, Hosni had threatened to burn any Israeli books found in Egyptian libraries. “A passing comment was taken and made the be all and end all of a campaign. I think that was not fair.” He would like to see an Arab head of Unesco as it would help overcome “feelings of alienation, rejection and anger” in the region.