This article was updated September 22, 2009, at 6:13pm, to reflect the results of the Unesco election.
A bitter, at times ugly, battle over the election of a new director general of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, ended in a surprise upset on Tuesday, as the Egyptian front-runner was defeated in a last-minute surge of support for a former Bulgarian foreign minister, Irina Bokova. The tally was 31-27 in a contest where 30 votes won the prize.
Bokova will be the first woman and the first eastern European to hold the top job at Unesco, which is based in Paris. She will replace Koichiro Matsuura of Japan.
Until Monday, when several other candidates had withdrawn and European and other countries coalesced behind Bokova to deny the victory to the controversial Egyptan candidate, Farouk Hosni, he seemed almost unbeatable. But in Monday’s vote by the Unesco board, Bokova suddenly pulled even with Hosni in a 29-29 tie.
Only a few weeks ago, Hosni was seen as the leading candidate. He is a recognized artist who has been Egyptian culture minister for twenty-two years. But opposition from critics abroad and at home grews steadily harsher as the voting neared. His 2008 boast in parliament that he would burn any Israeli book found in an Egyptian library has drawn the wrath of Jewish organizations in Europe and the United States.
Organizations and individuals promoting freedom of expression have also decried his banning of publications in Egypt, including Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (and the subsequent film) as well as books deemed offensive to Islamists or not in line with Egypt’s culture, according to Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-born author, writing in the Washington Post. Unesco is the UN’s guardian of press freedom.
A stake for the United Nations was the reputation of Unesco as the major cultural center of the UN system at a time when many nations, including the United States under President Obama, are attempting to lower distrust between the Muslim world and the West. While Hosni had not signaled that he would have a provocative agenda for Unesco, he would be monitored more closely than other candidates because of his past record. No Arab has ever held this post, considered one of the UN’s cushier jobs.
The United States withdrew from Unesco in 1984 because of its then-director’s push to establish a new “international information order,” anathema to Western media organizations, which saw it as an opening to censorship and the licensing of journalists. The United States did not return to the organization until 2003; it now has a seat on the agency’s board.
Votes on the Unesco board are secret, and the United States had not announced publicly which candidate it supported. The State Department said in a September 4 statement only that Washington cared deeply about the outcome and wanted a candidate with “consensus-building skills, political stature, a demonstrated commitment to UNESCO’s core principles, and a compelling vision for carrying forth its mandate.”
Hosni, speaking to Egyptian journalists, was widely reported to have said that the US ambassador to Unesco, David Killion, was undermining his candidacy because he was Jewish. People who know Killion say that neither of these characterizations is true.
Ironically, Israel, which first opposed Hosni’s candidacy, has pulled back, reportedly to ensure that Egypt’s cooperation on Gaza and other issues will continue, adding to the byzantine maneuvering around this campaign. Horse trading attends every UN election.
A controversy over the direction of Unesco, with its many reputable programs worldwide, such as the naming of World Heritage Sites and its involvement in protecting and restoring important monuments of value across civilizations, would be damaging to the UN when it faces many other challenges.
“In the post-9/11 world, the issues facing Unesco–education, culture, human rights, science and historical heritage–are among the key topics that can help resolve the deep differences that face us,” said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Advancement of Human Rights in New York and a member of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. “The organization has a vital role to play–with the right leadership and with renewed American participation.”
The race for the director general’s job, with a four-year term, had narrowed to four candidates by Saturday: Hosni; Benita Ferrero-Waldner of Austria, the European commissioner for external relations; Irina Bokova, a former foreign minister of Bulgaria; and Ivonne Baki of Ecuador.
Between Sunday evening and Monday’s round of voting, Ferrero-Waldner suddenly dropped out, saying her withdrawal was in the interest of Unesco and European unity. Diplomats then gathered enough votes for the Bulgarian candidate to bring the contest to a draw. Like the Arab nations, Eastern Europe has never had a Unesco director general.