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Delegates fail to elect new chief in first round of voting

Text by NEWS WIRES

Latest update : 2009-09-18

Delegates at the United Nations' culture and education agency have failed to elect a new director-general after the first round of voting. A bid for the post by Egypt's minister of culture, Farouk Hosni (pictured), has provoked a bitter election row.

REUTERS - A political storm with accusations of anti-Semitism and censorship stirred up UNESCO’s election of a new director-general on Thursday, centring on one of the top candidates’ comment that he would burn Israeli books.

Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni’s bid for the United Nations culture agency’s top post has drawn fire from French intellectuals and Jewish organisations, who were joined by press freedom activists before the first round of voting on Thursday.

But at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, backers hailed Hosni as “a man of peace” who would improve ties with Muslim countries.

“If we don’t bring in the Muslim world, it will be understood as a signal against them, and that will be difficult for us,” Sishir Das, a member of the Malaysian delegation, told Reuters in the UNESCO foyer. “He has never been controversial, he has always been considered a man of peace.”

But asked last year about Israeli books in Egyptian libraries, Hosni was quoted as telling a member of parliament:
“Let’s burn these books; if there are any, I will burn them myself before you.”

Hosni this year apologised for the comment and some prominent activists such as French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld have accepted his regrets and supported him.

Other activists have since piled into the row, accusing Hosni of colluding in censorship and violation of press freedom in Egypt, and pressuring UNESCO members not to vote for him.

“Hosni is culture minister in a country that doesn’t respect freedom of speech,” Jean-Francois Julliard, secretary-general of media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, told Reuters. “It’s difficult to see someone like that as head of UNESCO.”

Egypt’s delegation at UNESCO said Hosni would not comment until after the vote. UNESCO declined to comment on the case.

The outcry creates a difficult situation for governments who like to use top U.N. posts in diplomatic horse-trading.

 

Key ally

France is backing Egypt, a key ally in its drive for a Mediterranean Union. Other European countries such as Germany have refrained from taking sides, but diplomatic sources said the controversy could nudge them towards voting for Austrian candidate Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

The United States is reportedly working behind the scenes to prevent Hosni from winning the vote, which starts on Thursday with a first round. Further rounds could be held in coming days.

A painter who has served as culture minister for two decades, Hosni was long viewed as a front-runner.

In May, philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, film director Claude Lanzmann and Nobel Peace Price laureate Elie Wiesel published a column in newspaper Le Monde accusing him of anti-Semitism, citing the “book-burning” quote and others.

Hosni’s response in the same newspaper avoided any direct reference to the quotes, but he said he had not intended to hurt anyone and that any harsh remarks of his should be placed in the context of the suffering of the Palestinian people.

In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but it has resisted warmer relations.

Date created : 2009-09-17

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