Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni and his supporters had hoped he would become the first Arab to head the U.N. Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Instead, the 64 year-old agency will have its first woman director-general.
Hosni attributed his defeat to a conspiracy, while Arab media blamed the United States and Jews.
European Jewish intellectuals, including Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, were among those who called for Hosni to be denied the Paris-based post, largely because of remarks he made last year in favor of burning any Israeli books found in Egypt’s Alexandria library. He later apologized for the comments.
Some Egyptians also questioned the position going to a man who for 22 years represented a government accused by advocacy groups of censorship and violating free speech, when UNESCO’s goals include “empowering people through the free flow of ideas.”
Hosni, 71, went into the nine-strong race as the favorite, backed by the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and the African Union. Supporters said that having an Arab at the helm of the agency at his time would help to build bridges between cultures and combat “Islamophobia.”
But four rounds of voting by UNESCO’s 58-member executive board failed the give him the majority he needed, while slowly whittling down the field until just Hosni and Bulgarian candidate Irina Bokova, 57, remained.
The fourth round gave the two candidates 29 votes each, and in the fifth and final round, Bokova, who is currently Bulgaria’s ambassador to France, won by 31-27.
UNESCO said in a statement that her appointment would be submitted to the full 193 membership on October 15 for approval. She will then replace Japan’s Koichiro Matsuura, who ends his second four-year term in November.
‘Blame yourself, not the Jews’
“It was clear by the end of the competition that there was a conspiracy against me,” Hosni was quoted as telling reporters on returning to Cairo from Paris. “There are a group of the world’s Jews who had a major influence in the elections, who were a serious threat to Egypt taking this position.”
The independent Rose al-Yusuf raised the specter of Islamophobia, charging that “the West stands against the others on the basis of religion in critical moments.”
Parts of the Egyptian blogosphere, by contrast, celebrated Hosni’s defeat.
“Do not blame the Jews, blame yourself,” wrote one leading blogress, known as Zeinobia.
“He did not and does not deserve this position because it will be like a reward for his crimes against the long culture and history of this country for 22 years,” she wrote.
Another, writing on the Arabist blog, said Hosni “has acted in the interest of the regime rather than the interests of culture time and again,” adding that “he is generally loathed by Egyptian artists and writers of any standing.”
Media watchdog Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) lists Egypt as one of 12 “enemies” of Internet free speech and says Egyptian bloggers are “among the most hounded in the world.”
Welcoming the election outcome, the Jewish organization B’nai B’rith International which opposed Hosni’s candidacy, said in a statement, “It’s important for the valuable educational and cultural mission of UNESCO to have someone in the top job who is open to cross-cultural understanding, and is interested in fostering and nurturing cross-cultural ties. Ambassador Bokova is a solid choice.”
In an interview with the Bulgarian newspaper Standart, Bokova played down the idea that her victory reflected a West-Arab divide.
“I firmly believe there is not such a division,” she said. “I did not run a campaign which divides. It was aimed at all regions of the world, including my Arabian friends.”
Bokova said she visited three Arab countries during her campaign “because I wanted to pay respect to the Arabian world, to its role, to its worth in the world, to this civilization of millennial history and tremendous contribution to the history of humankind. I dearly hope this confrontation is non-existent and I will do my best, if there has been even the slightest doubt, that it will be cleared.”