Egypt minister who urged burning Hebrew books stumbles in bid for UN post
Elie Wiesel campaigns against former culture minister Farouk Hosni, who is in the running to head UNESCO.
Egypt is pushing hard to get its culture minister named as the head of the UN agency promoting cultural diversity. But as Farouk Hosni heads to Paris Wednesday to campaign for the job, he has to overcome controversy over his comments vowing to burn any Israeli books in Egypt's famed Library of Alexandria.
Hosni made the remarks in April 2008 to Egyptian lawmakers to defend himself against charges of being soft toward Israel - and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel and Jewish activists seized on them, warning in late May that Hosni was "a danger" if named to the UNESCO post.
The flap illustrates the role Hosni has played in 22 years as culture minister in an authoritarian nation where he must negotiate a path between liberals and conservatives, knowing who to appease and when.
As the longest-serving member in Egypt's Cabinet, the 71-year-old Hosni has won a reputation as a slippery political survivor.
"He is the model of a minister in a dictatorship. He can defend something and the exact opposite. What is important is that he stays in his post," said Alaa al-Aswany, a celebrated Egyptian novelist and frequent commentator on its cultural scene.
At times he has appeared as unusually liberal in Egypt's increasingly conservative society. Last year, he raised a storm when he criticized the prevalence of the Muslim headscarf worn by women as a sign of "backwardness."
But he has also implemented censorship of some books and films in Egypt to assuage Islamic hard-liners. And he has stuck to the stance held by most artists in Egypt that the country should not improve ties with Israel - despite the two nations' peace treaty - until a wider Israeli-Arab peace is reached.
At stake is the Arab world's latest attempt to win the coveted post as head of UNESCO, the world's lead agency for promoting peace, education and cultural diversity. Arabs have never held the post since it was created in 1946, and lost a bid in 1999.
The director general for the Paris-based UNESCO is selected in a secret ballot among the agency's 58-seat elected executive board.
The vote is expected this fall, and Hosni's eight competitors include Austria's Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the current EU External Relations Commissioner.
"Technically speaking ... we have already what it takes to win," Hosni's campaign manager Hossam Nassar told The Associated Press, saying Egypt has secured support from Arab, African and Islamic regional organizations, as well as some European and Latin American countries.
Israel dropped its objection to Hosni's nomination in a decision made at the "highest levels" of the government, said Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor.
But the win is less than secure.
Nobel laureate Weisel and two other Jewish intellectuals have written a letter listing Hosni's anti-Israeli comments over the years, including a 2001 description of Israeli culture as "inhumane" and "racist."
In a damage control tactic, Hosni wrote in the French newspaper Le Monde that his book burning comments were made without "intention or premeditation," and should be viewed in the context of his indignation at the suffering of the Palestinian people.
A second article is planned for a German publication to counter criticism from Jewish groups there and while in Paris, Hosni will rally for support for his threatened candidacy.
In April, Hosni defected from his steadfast opposition to cultural normalization with Israel and abruptly backed the invitation of Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim to Cairo, saying at the time it showed his willingness to have dealings with Israelis if he became the UNESCO chief.
To Hosni's domestic critics, his battles appear more in sync with his own needs - or that of the government - then with any kind of deep convictions.
He criticized Islamists when they faced a security crackdown. He supported censorship to appease Egypt's Christian minority during violent tension with Muslims. He criticized Israel when he was wooing Egyptian anti-Israel intellectuals.
John Daly, head of UNESCO advocacy group and a long time observer of the organization, said Hosni's past record may not stand him in good stead.
"I think they (donors) would be very concerned that two decades heading an Egyptian ministry would not prepare Hosni for managing an intergovernmental agency and the international civil servants who operate it with the required transparency, efficiency, and standards of public service," he said.