PARIS, (Reuters) – Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, who said last year he was ready to burn Israeli books, failed on Tuesday to become the next head of the U.N. culture and education body, losing out to a Bulgarian diplomat.
Irina Gueorguieva Bokova, a former foreign minister, won the fifth and final round of voting by 31 to 27 in a ballot that laid bare bitter divisions within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
Given little chance of victory before the vote, Bokova will become the first woman to head the Paris-based body if, as expected, its 193 member states validate the result next month.
“I will use all good ideas and we will work together,” the 57-year-old career diplomat told Reuters. “I have never considered that such a competition was a war, a battle pitting one side against the other,” she added. However, sources within UNESCO said the bruising contest risked leaving its mark, with accusations of heavy handed lobbying and foul play hanging in the air. “It became very conflictive. As delegates, we were very concerned about the reputation of UNESCO,” said Homero Aridjis, a delegate from Mexico.
Hosni, 71, was favourite to become the Arab world’s first UNESCO director-general, but his candidacy created outrage amongst Jewish organisations, while media rights activists accused him of turning a blind eye to censorship in Egypt. His supporters said Tuesday’s vote was a missed opportunity to send a positive signal to the Muslim world. “What I find disappointing is not the quality of the winner but the fact that the road has been blocked to a different cultural voice,” said Nasser Hossam, who had led Hosni’s election campaign.
“No one from the Arab or Muslim world has made it to the top of UNESCO while Europe has had the post several times,” he said.
Hosni stirred fierce controversy last year in an angry exchange in the Egyptian parliament, when he said he would burn Israeli books if he found them in Egyptian libraries. He has also been quoted as calling Israeli culture “inhuman”.
A painter who has served as culture minister for more than two decades, he later said he regretted the comments.
Israel did not openly oppose his candidacy and some European countries, such as France, backed his bid, believing Egypt deserved a high profile international post. However, UNESCO sources told Reuters the United States and a number of northern European countries, including Germany, supported the Bulgarian on Tuesday.
There was a muted response in Cairo, although some commentators said the ballot was not aimed against Egypt. “I do not believe that this should be read as an attitude towards Egypt. I think the question was related to the candidate,” said Egypt’s former foreign minister, Ahmed Maher. “I am sure that relations between us and the countries, however they voted, will remain as they were. I don’t think they will be affected by this,” he told Reuters. For others, Hosni’s failure reflected a failed chance to improve dialogue with the Muslim world. “I think it was a real opportunity to confirm the dialogue between West and East … I think it was time to have one Muslim, even one who was very secular like Hosni, (as UNESCO head),” said Egyptian analyst Dia Rashwan. It is not the first time UNESCO has become embroiled in controversy. In 1999, the election of the current director-general, Japan’s Koichiro Matsuura, was marred by allegations of corruption, bidding wars and rigged votes.