Members of UNESCO’s governing body are casting their ballots today in the first round of voting for a new director-general. The result will be available later today, and if one of the nine candidates for the post does not win 31 votes out of the total of 58 members of the board, a second and third round of voting is expected before a winner emerges. He or she will then be approved by UNESCO’s 193-member general conference in October. Despite the criticism he has faced both at home and abroad, Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, Egypt’s candidate, remains the front runner.

Since his nomination for the post by President Hosni Mubarak, a veritable Pharaohs’ Curse has hit Hosni’s campaign, with controversy surrounding his candidacy. Abroad, he has been accused of being an anti-Semite who would “burn” any Israeli books found on the shelves of Egypt’s libraries. When he published an apology in the French newspaper Le Monde regretting comments made in the heat of the moment, Hosni was accused at home of flirting with Israel in an attempt to secure the UNESCO post. Hosni’s announcement that Egypt’s National Centre for Translation (NCT) would publish Arabic translations of novels by Israeli writers David Grossman and Amos Oz also sparked controversy, with commentators believing the timing of the announcement was not a coincidence, even if the NCT has published five translations from the Hebrew over the past 10 years. The announcement, Hosni said, was simply a continuation of existing policy. Similar controversy greeted the inauguration by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) of the renovated Moses Ibn Maymoun Synagogue in the Jewish area of the Muski district in Cairo.

Hosni has also been criticised by liberals, who have claimed that his record as a member of Egyptian governments since the late 1980s has raised questions about his commitment to the free flow of information, another key UNESCO mission. However, it is Egypt’s pivotal role in the region that may do most to secure Hosni’s election as the next UNESCO director-general. Israel has also dropped its objections to Hosni’s nomination. What may still threaten Hosni’s chances is the fact that there are several female candidates for the post, and since the UN organisation has not yet been headed by a woman this could boost a woman’s chances of election. During the final stages of Hosni’s campaign, moves against him apparently reached their peak with the US ambassador to UNESCO, David T. Killion, reportedly asking members of the organisation’s executive board not to vote for Hosni. One source in Paris speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly under condition of anonymity said that moves against Hosni aimed to deny him victory in the first round of voting, such that various bargains could then be made.

The US campaign against Hosni has dominated the atmosphere at UNESCO headquarters in Paris recently, and the atmosphere was not entirely cleared even when Killion attended a reception organised by Hani Hilal, Egypt’s minister of higher education, who is in Paris as part of Hosni’s election campaign. Yet, according to Hossam Nassar, a consultant to Hosni’s campaign, the campaign against Hosni’s election “has not been launched by the United States, but by the US ambassador to UNESCO.” Speaking to the Weekly from Paris, Nassar said that “even though the United States has not announced who it will vote for, or even clarified its position towards the Egyptian candidate, it will not launch a campaign against him as Egypt and the US have a strong friendship on all levels.” “The minister’s situation remains the strongest despite the campaigns against him,” Nassar said, adding that Hosni has the broadest international support of all the candidates for the post. Hosni also has the support of the Al-Nabi Daniel Jewish Organisation, members of which recently toured historically Jewish areas in Cairo to see restoration work being carried out on Jewish monuments. Observers expect that Hosni will gain a majority of votes during the first round of voting for the UNESCO post, pointing in particular to his record as an artist and as Egypt’s minister of culture for the past 22 years. A further reason why Hosni may expect success, observers say, is that he has the support of most Arab and African countries, as well as some European.

One UNESCO source, speaking to the Weekly on condition of anonymity, said that the presence of three European candidates in the election — Ina Marciulionyte from Lithuania, Irina Gueoguieva Bokova from Bulgaria and Benita Ferrero-Waldner from Austria — could divide the European vote, making it less likely that any one of them will win. Hosni’s election campaign has been based on the idea of reconciliation between civilisations and religions, between human beings and the environment, and between arid and wetter areas of the world. He has also stressed the need to reduce the gap between those who live in poverty and those who enjoy prosperity.

“Education is one of UNESCO’s core concerns,” Hosni told the Weekly recently, and it is important to educate children ethically, as well as provide them with a quality basic education. “Children should be taught the value of life and faith, as well as ways in which they can discover their own skills. Solutions must be found to improve the lives of street children throughout the world, who should be provided with a proper standard of living,” he said. UNESCO’s world heritage programme, which aims to protect the world’s built heritage, should also be extended to increase the number of sites on the current list, as well as their geographical distribution. Awareness should be raised of the importance of heritage for all nations, Hosni said, since this could reinforce international peace and understanding. During his presentation to members of UNESCO’s executive board earlier this week, Hosni is believed to have called for freeing the organisation of its current “heavy bureaucracy” and for reinforcing efforts to combat global poverty and injustice.

Hosni’s plans to reform the organisation, putting an emphasis on the idea of dialogue between civilisations, has four key commitments, the first of which is a commitment to identifying “new ways in which the organisation can work to bring about peace and reconciliation,” as well as the observance of human rights. A second commitment made by Hosni during his presentation is that, if elected, he will aim to use his tenure as UNESCO director-general to improve and extend the organisation’s work in the field of education, placing a special emphasis on young people and women. A third commitment aims to support the dialogue between cultures, which is seen as an essential component of building peace. “The dialogue between civilisations cannot be achieved until all continents embrace cultural exchange,” Hosni said. Hosni’s fourth commitment aims to support freedom of expression and the independence of the media. Free access to information is essential to building knowledge societies, Hosni said. Hosni added that a special priority was to support UNESCO’s work in Africa and among smaller nations.

Enhanced support for Africa was particularly important during the present global financial crisis, Hosni said, since Africa had been hit particularly hard by decreasing demand for raw materials, a reduction in foreign investment, and reduced flows of remittances from migrant workers. “Six million Africans are at risk of sliding into extreme poverty, and 700,000 African children risk death during their first year of life,” Hosni said. Should he win the vote this week, Hosni will aim to accelerate and improve reform of UNESCO, reducing bureaucratic procedures and improving staff training. “We will also give special priority to decentralisation in the framework of the Priority Africa programme, in order to improve the quality of the work that is carried out,” Hosni said. After his presentation to the board, Hosni was asked six questions relating to his vision for UNESCO and the ways in which he would implement reform. After more than 20 years as Egypt’s minister of culture, how will you use your experience to find new sources of finance for UNESCO, particularly within the context of the current financial crisis, Hosni was asked. How will you guarantee the free and independent exchange of ideas in achieving your goal of the reconciliation of civilisations? How will you embrace exchange between the different continents? In reply, Hosni said that a special development fund might be set up to raise additional finance for the organisation, along the lines of the cultural development fund set up by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. “As far as freedom of thought and expression is concerned, my record as Egyptian minister of culture should demonstrate my commitment,” Hosni said. (Al Ahram)