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The executive board of UNESCO, the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, begins voting this week on a new director-general. The vote is of particular interest in Egypt because Egypt's culture minister, Farouk Hosny, was once a clear frontrunner for the post. But a backlash has erupted over his candidacy, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.
PETER KENYON: After two decades as culture minister in Egypt, Farouk Hosny was looking to ascend to the global cultural stage and his candidacy to lead UNESCO quickly received a number of significant endorsements.
But in France, the cultural agency's host country, intellectuals and Le Monde newspaper launched an attack on Hosny's candidacy, charging him, among other things, with making anti-Semitic statements. The most widely circulated incident involved a statement to the Egyptian parliament in May of last year when Hosny reportedly said that if any Hebrew books were found in Egyptian libraries, he would burn them himself. He later apologized for the statement.
In an interview with the BBC Arabic service that was posted on his own Web site, Hosny comes across as a man trying to balance the Arab hatred of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories with his desire to present a more modern and tolerant face of Islam to the West.
He said, as an Arab Cabinet minister, he opposed any normalization of relations with Israel while the Palestinians continued to suffer. But, at the same time, he argued that he would be fully capable of representing Israeli culture as well as any other culture as head of UNESCO.
Mr. FAROUK HOSNY (Egyptian Cultural Minister): (Through Translator) As the head of a global organization, I have to represent all of its members. Israel is a member, and that means Israel will get its full rights and participation in the organization.
KENYON: But the opposition to Hosny continued to mount. The Anti-Defamation League issued an open letter calling Hosny unfit for the position, citing what it called a long history of expressing hostility toward Israeli culture.
When Hosny's Culture Ministry launched a very public renovation of an old Jewish synagogue in Cairo, critics called it a transparent attempt to distract attention from his controversial comments.Le Monde launched another attack, charging the French government with playing politics by not overtly opposing Hosny's candidacy. The paper said President Nicolas Sarkozy was anxious to win the Egyptian government's support for his proposed European-Mediterranean union.
Cairo political scientist Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid says there's some irony in the fact that Hosny is being pilloried as close-minded and anti-Semitic when at home, many of his critics think he's not sufficiently respectful toward the increasingly conservative brand of Islam heard in Egypt.
Professor MUSTAPHA KAMEL AL-SAYYID (Political Science, Cairo University): I think this was unfortunate, the statement he made. To a certain extent, you know, sometimes he would leave himself to his emotions and would say something that he would regret later.
KENYON: As the vote neared, however, the controversy began to take on a familiar West-versus-Islam tone. There are several other candidates seeking to head UNESCO, including some highly qualified women who are gaining strong support in Europe among those looking to see the first female head of the U.N.'s cultural arm. At the same time, says Sayyid, Arabs are rallying behind Hosny, and they will be angry if he loses.
Prof. AL-SAYYID: Farouk Hosny now is seen as the candidate of the Arabs and of the Muslim world, so I guess this would leave a sense of bitterness in Arab and Muslim countries.
KENYON: The new director general is expected to be ratified by UNESCO's general conference next month.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.
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