• Arts
  • September 19, 2009
  • 5 minutes read

New round in UNESCO vote as Hosni misses majority

New round in UNESCO vote as Hosni misses majority

Egypt’s controversial candidate for UNESCO director general failed to win an absolute majority in a ballot of world envoys on Friday, with the vote now set to head to a third round, a spokesman said.

Envoys to the United Nations cultural organization started voting Thursday for a successor to Japan’s Koichiro Matsuura as director general, with the Farouq Hosni, Egypt’s culture minister for 22 years, seen as the frontrunner.

One of nine candidates, Hosni fell short of the 30 votes needed to win election, and a third ballot was set for Saturday, the UNESCO spokesman said.

According to a diplomat at the organization, the 71-year-old Hosni secured 23 of the votes from UNESCO’s 58-nation executive council.
Leading over rivals
Hosni nevertheless held a comfortable lead over his three nearest rivals: European Commissioner for External Relations Benita Ferrero-Waldner with nine votes, Bulgarian ex-foreign minister Irina Bokova, who won eight, as did Ecuador’s Ivonne Baki.

The Egyptian is seeking to become the first representative from the Arab world to head the U.N. agency mandated to promote global understanding through culture, education and science.

Supporters say the Egyptian’s election would send a positive signal from the West to the Muslim world, but the race has been clouded by charges that anti-Israel comments made last year make him unfit for the role.

Hosni’s detractors include Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who says his appointment would “shame” the global community, as well as the Nazi-hunting Simon Wiesenthal Center and U.S. and French intellectuals.

In his long career, Hosni has often been accused of promoting anti-Semitism, in particular when he told the Egyptian parliament in May last year: “I’d burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt.”

Fighting off the charges ahead of the first round of voting, Hosni insisted his comment was part of an angry exchange with hardliners from the Muslim Brotherhood and was taken out of context.

He told France 24 television he had been referring only to “Israeli books that insult Islam,” which he was accused of tolerating in Egypt’s libraries.

Difficulties with Islamists
Some prominent activists such as French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld have accepted Hosni’s regrets and supported him. Israel has dropped its objection to his candidacy, according to Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.

Hosni’s ministry has also taken steps in recent months to minimize fallout, announcing that it would restore a synagogue dedicated to 12th century Jewish scholar Maimonides as part of a project to restore 10 Jewish temples across Egypt.

The head of Egyptian antiquities said at the time he hoped the restoration would help quash internet rumors about neglect that he believed were spread to hurt Hosni’s bid to lead UNESCO.

Yet while Hosni needs to win favor abroad, he has little wiggle room on the domestic front.

Internationally, he has been accused of colluding in censorship and violations of press freedom in Egypt. But his ministry has also sometimes come under fire at home for allowing films deemed too steamy or controversial for Egyptian mores.

He also sparked a political furor in Egypt three years ago when he described the Muslim headscarf as a “step backward.” Those remarks prompted the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest and most powerful opposition group, to demand he resign.

Members of his own ruling National Democratic Party joined the fray, which degenerated into name-calling in parliament.

Analysts, however, say Hosni has traditionally had an ally in Egyptian First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, helping him weather domestic criticism. Egypt, also keen to be represented at UNESCO’s helm, has thrown its full weight behind him.

While Israel dropped its objections to Hosni, Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth has reported senior Israeli officials were working to thwart the appointment, despite assurances by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel would not block it.

If Hosni is chosen to lead UNESCO, analysts say he would similarly have to walk a precarious political line once in office to avoid alienating either constituents in the Arab and Muslim world or those who supported him in Europe and the West.

“Maybe he would be asked to visit Israel, or Jerusalem, as part of the international monuments in the world, and that will be very difficult,” said Egyptian analyst Hala Mustafa.

Hosni himself has tried to minimize the controversy, saying that he regretted his remarks, found racism abhorrent, and had worked for mutual understanding and cultural dialogue.

“I am a man of peace, and I am aware that peace is based on understanding and respect,” he said on his website.