The race to elect a new leader for the United Nations’s culture and education agency, UNESCO, got off to a heated start on Monday amid a continuing row over past anti-Israeli comments made by the frontrunner, Egyptian Culture Minister Faruq Hosni.
Though it remains the world’s premier cultural institution, many say UNESCO’s heyday is long past. The Paris-based organisation can boast of numerous achievements, but several of its activities have increasingly overlapped with other UN programmes, including the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef). UNESCO has also been crippled by a strict policy of budgetary cuts.
Yet, Egypt’s campaign to have its culture minister, Faruq Hosni, appointed to succeed the outgoing director general, Japan’s Koichiro Matsuura, underscores the continued prestige associated with the mammoth organisation that brings together no less than 193 countries.
Egyptian authorities have thrown their full weight behind Hosni’s candidacy, going so far as to lobby UNESCO’s host country, France, during the first Mediterranean Union summit in 2008.
However, Hosni’s bid has run into stiff opposition abroad, particularly in the United States and France, where intellectuals and the media have picked-up on his anti-Israeli statements. In a heated parliamentary debate with members of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2008, the culture minister vowed to “burn all Israeli books” if he found any in Egyptian libraries.
In an article published on May 22 in French daily Le Monde, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and several French intellectuals urged the international community “to spare itself from the shame of appointing Faruq Hosni to the post of UNESCO director general.” A few days letter, Hosni voiced regret for his words in an article published in the same newspaper.
Despite fierce opposition from Jewish communities around the world, Israel announced in May it would not stand in the way of Hosni’s candidacy.
‘Lobbying is absolutely normal’
When asked to comment on the Egyptian lobbying, a former UNESCO employee who wished to remain anonymous said there was nothing abnormal about it: “In my 33-year career I witnessed three different director generals and just as many campaigns.”
“When Koichuro Matsuura was elected, no one objected to Japan’s intense campaigning,” he said. Back then, he added, Egypt’s candidate had also entered the contest as frontrunner, “only to see Japan’s lobbying outmuscle the efforts of his government”.
Despite the opposition, Hosni is still expected to secure the job. He says he enjoys the support of 32 of the 58 countries sitting on UNESCO’s executive council, including delegates from the African Union and the Arab League.
The Egyptian candidate has also earned credit for his achievements as the head of the country’s ministry of culture, a position he has held for 22 years. These include the establishment of Cairo’s Museum of Modern Art and the renovation of Alexandria’s opera house.
Among the nine other candidates, the European commissioner for external relations, Benita Ferrero-Walder, is thought to be the closest challenger. But the bid by the former Austrian foreign minister has also been tarnished by her past role in a coalition government that included the Austrian far right.
The election of a new director general is expected to require five rounds of voting. The winner will then be endorsed by the organisation’s 193-member assembly in October.