Bulgarian diplomat could become the first woman to lead Unesco

Irina Bokova will become the first woman and the first Eastern European to lead the global cultural institution.

Egyptian Culture Minister Faruq Hosni (C) speaks to journalists upon his arrival to Cairo on September 23, 2009. Hosni, who failed to secure election as the new head of the UN cultural organisation UNESCO, accused the agency of being politicised on his homecoming.<br />AFP PHOTO/KHALED DESOUKI *** Local Caption ***  867683-01-08.jpg *** Local Caption ***  867683-01-08.jpg
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CAIRO // For Irina Bokova, who was nominated as director general of Unesco (UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), the past week of voting must have felt like a Cinderella story. In an election that some have seen as a clash of civilisations writ large, the career Bulgarian diplomat rose from relative obscurity to win a nail-biting fifth and final vote on Tuesday night against Farouk Hosni, the well-known and controversial Egyptian culture minister.

If Unesco's general conference of 193 nations approves her nomination next month, Ambassador Bokova will become the first woman and the first Eastern European to lead the global cultural institution. But her win - or rather Mr Hosni's defeat - is a bitter pill for many in the Middle East to swallow. The minister's defenders say that he fell victim to a media campaign that sought to discredit him with accusations of anti-Semitism. Upon his return from Paris yesterday, Mr Hosni told reporters that Unesco had allowed the vote to be "politicised" under US pressure and blamed "Zionist pressure" for his loss, according to Agence France-Presse, adding that the US ambassador to Unesco did "everything he could" to keep him from winning the election.

Central to the arguments against Mr Hosni's candidacy were comments he made in front of Egypt's parliament last year, when the culture minister told legislators that he would burn Israeli books in the Alexandria Library. Mr Hosni has repeatedly apologised, saying his comments had been taken out of context. "I didn't say exactly what was written in the newspapers. The MP said: 'There are Israeli books that insult Islam in the libraries of the ministry.' I insisted there weren't. He insisted there were," said Mr Hosni in an interview with The National in July. "I said: 'OK, show me this book and I'll burn it in front of you.' Someone took half of what was said and put it in the newspapers: Farouk Hosni is going to burn Israeli books. This is crazy." Despite the apology, Mr Hosni's candidacy has attracted criticism from western intellectuals and newspaper columnists.

Earlier this year, Bernard-Henri Lévy, a prominent French intellectual; Elie Wiesel, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate; and Claude Lanzmann, a French filmmaker; wrote an open letter in the French newspaper Le Monde that harshly criticised Mr Hosni's candidacy. "Mr Farouk Hosni is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue, and culture; Mr Farouk Hosni is a dangerous man, an inciter of hearts and minds," they wrote. "There is only little, very little time left to avoid committing the major mistake of elevating Mr Farouk Hosni above others to this eminent post."

In response to questions sent by e-mail yesterday, Mr Lévy said that it was Mr Hosni's dubious record as the doyen of Egyptian culture that caused him the most concern. "If yesterday's vote represents anything, it is as a victory for all those filmmakers, screenwriters, writers, poets, bloggers and artists, with whose cases I have grown familiar, who have been stifled or censored during Hosni's long reign as the head of the culture ministry," wrote Mr Lévy. "My approach has been very straightforward. I discovered last May that this man was going to rule over world culture through Unesco. So I just looked at what he had done when he served as the culture director of his own country. And what I discovered was, unfortunately, terribly discouraging."

Jewish leaders in the United States have agreed. Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a US-based Jewish-rights organisation, praised Unesco's 58-member executive board yesterday for rejecting "the bias and hostility to cultural openness and free expression that Mr Hosni promotes". As the ADL celebrated, Egyptian newspapers condemned what they saw as a Jewish-led campaign to smear Mr Hosni and characterised it as part of a broader effort to discredit Arabs and Muslims in general.

"The United States, backed by a fierce Jewish information campaign, sought with full force to stop the advance of Farouk Hosni, the Egyptian and Arab candidate," said one article in the government-run Al Ahram newspaper yesterday. However, at a meeting earlier this year between Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, and Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, the Israeli leader promised that the Jewish state would lift its objection to Mr Hosni's candidacy. But the anti-Hosni campaign continued with Israel's blessing, said Mohammed Salmawy, the head of the Egyptian Writers' Union, because Israel had "violated all the rules and laws of Unesco" with its destruction of Islamic monuments in Jerusalem and feared an unsympathetic leader for the world culture body. "It wasn't the fact that he had said something that alarmed them because if this had been the case, the moment he had retracted it and expressed his regret that it had been misunderstood and published it publicly in front of everybody, they would have taken account of that," Mr Salmawy said.

"It would have focused on any Arab who had reached that position. If Hosni hadn't said that particular phrase, which they used and reused and tried to exploit in all ways possible, they would have found another pretext." Opinions among Egyptian intellectuals were hardly united in favour of Mr Hosni's candidacy. Many see Mr Hosni, whose 22 years in the cabinet makes him Egypt's longest-serving minister, as a political survivor who is willing to say anything to mollify his critics.

In 2006, Mr Hosni told an Egyptian journalist that the hijab, one form of the veil commonly worn by Muslim women, is "a step backwards for Egyptian women". Egyptian parliamentarians were outraged. Alaa al Aswany, an Egyptian author and political commentator, said Mr Hosni's veil comment was nothing more than a naked attempt to endear himself to the West. "One terrible thing about him is that you will never know exactly what is his real opinion about any issue because he is this kind of guy who will always be capable of saying anything contrarian just to keep his post," said Mr al Aswany, who added that talk of a "clash of civilisations" from Mr Hosni's defenders is "silly".

Mr Hosni is unfit to lead Unesco less because of his perceived anti-Jewish comments, said Mr al Aswany, and more because of his complicity with Mr Mubarak's autocratic regime during his long tenure as Egypt's culture minister. "There is a very big contradiction from the beginning because Mr Hosni is a minister in a dictatorship and he is a minister in a regime that has not been elected by the Egyptian people," said Mr al Aswany. "As the director of Unesco, you're supposed to support human rights, democracy, equality between people, free elections - elements that are especially absent in Mr Hosni's regime."