Egypt's Farouk Hosni Draws Opposition in Bid to Lead UNESCO

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 9, 2009

PARIS, Sept. 8 -- Farouk Hosni seemed like a shoo-in to become UNESCO's next director general. Egypt's culture minister for the past two decades, Hosni, 71, was also a painter and diplomat. Most important, his candidacy was being pushed hard by President Hosni Mubarak, who enlisted world leaders in the idea that it was high time for an Arab to get the job.

But as pre-election maneuvers got underway this week at the Paris headquarters of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Hosni's chances were clouded by a chorus of charges that he is the wrong man for the job -- specifically that he is filled with unremitting hatred for Israel and has long played a key role in Egypt's stultifying censorship bureaucracy.

Hosni's candidacy and the passionate opposition it has generated have provoked another round of backbiting at an international organization that was founded in 1945 to promote peace through cultural exchange but has been roiled for years by poor management, intrigue and North-South clashes.

Moreover, the controversy has put the United States and other Western allies of Egypt in an uncomfortable position. Rejecting advice that he withdraw support from Hosni for the good of UNESCO, Mubarak has made the minister's election a point of honor for his government. Eager to stay in Mubarak's good graces and get his help for broader Middle East objectives, the allies have ended up espousing a lofty neutrality in public while elbowing behind the scenes to strip away Hosni's support.

Over his career, Hosni has accumulated a long record of opposing exchanges with Israel, repeatedly saying normalization must await resolution of the Palestinian issue and warning that opening up to Jewish culture would be dangerous for Egypt. But his most notorious sally came in May last year, when he told an Islamist member of the Egyptian parliament that he would personally burn any Israeli books found in Egyptian libraries.

Hosni apologized for the remark three months ago, as his campaign for the UNESCO post gathered speed. In a statement published in Paris, he attributed it to a hot temper and an Arabic-language metaphor that sounded worse than it was. But for his opponents, particularly Jewish activists and intellectuals, the evocative image of book-burning would not go away, and they said it disqualified him for the job.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher; Claude Lanzmann, the producer of a landmark film on the Holocaust; and Elie Wiesel, the writer and Holocaust survivor, issued a joint statement charging that Hosni's election would be a "shipwreck" for already troubled UNESCO and calling on the organization to "spare itself the shame" of choosing such a leader.

"Mr. Farouk Hosni is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue and culture," they said. "Mr. Farouk Hosni is a dangerous man, an inciter of hearts and minds."

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, an international Jewish group dedicated to tracking down former Nazis, said that, given his background, the prospect of Hosni as director general poses "a major threat to the very values of UNESCO."

Attacking from another angle, Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based journalism watchdog, said Hosni had failed to demonstrate his support for the freedom of expression that is one of UNESCO's main missions.

"This minister of Hosni Mubarak has been one of the main actors of censorship in Egypt, unfailingly trying to control press freedom as well as citizens' freedom of information," the group said.

Hosni, who came to Paris last week to promote his candidacy, has lined up pledges of support from the Arab League, the Organization of African Unity and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. If countries belonging to those groups all support him as promised, diplomats said, Hosni will sail to an easy victory. But, they added, some African countries, lobbied discreetly by Hosni's opponents, have signaled a willingness to shift to one of the other eight candidates.

The lineup of opposing camps has injected an uneasy strain of North-South tension into the maneuvering, recalling past disputes at UNESCO. The United States and Britain withdrew from the organization in 1984, for instance, when its then director general, Amadou Mahtar M'Bow of Senegal, tried to set up a "world press order" that Washington said smelled of Third World censorship. The United States, which is UNESCO's largest contributor, returned to the body only in 2003.

Against this sensitive background, the State Department refused to say whether the Obama administration opposes or supports Hosni. However, a spokesman, noting that the balloting will be secret, said the new director general should have "a demonstrated commitment to UNESCO's core principles."

A senior administration official in Washington, speaking on the condition of anonymity, was more direct. "There's no way we can support this guy," he said. "We did everything we could to get the Egyptians to support another candidate."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's government, which is depending heavily on Mubarak to advance its project for a union of Mediterranean countries, also has avoided taking sides in public. Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told a radio interviewer that France would not endorse a candidate because UNESCO's headquarters is in Paris.

Even Israel, which spent months attacking Hosni's candidacy, has backed off in recent months. Foreign Ministry officials said they got orders to drop the opposition after Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited Cairo in May seeking Mubarak's cooperation in preventing arms smuggling to the Gaza Strip and other issues important to the Jewish state.

One of Hosni's main rivals for the job, European External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner of Austria, also declined to criticize him directly. "This is the organization that should include all the countries," she said in an interview. "It should develop bridges between North and South, between East and West."

Hosni, in a conversation with Egyptian journalists before leaving Cairo, was not so delicate; he said the new U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, David T. Killion, was working furiously in private to undermine his support. According to media accounts of the conversation, Hosni attributed Killion's zeal to the fact that he is Jewish. Acquaintances said Killion is not Jewish but noted that he worked for the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), an ardent promoter of Israel.

Killion did not respond to a request to discuss his role in the pre-vote discussions. Similarly, Hosni declined an interview request, citing a busy schedule of meetings with UNESCO diplomats before the voting begins Sept. 17.

In the voting, 58 countries have been accorded balloting privileges in a system of regional representation of the UNESCO membership. The voting can last several days.

Correspondent Howard Schneider in Jerusalem and staff writers Mary Beth Sheridan and Glenn Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

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