Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 December 2008
Issue No. 926
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Settling scores

A campaign to prevent Farouk Hosni becoming the next UNESCO director-general is taking shape, reports Nevine El-Aref

It was not an easy week for Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni and the members of his 2009 UNESCO election campaign committee. Hosni was caught up in yet another drive against his nomination for the post of UNESCO director-general and its impact lingers on.

Earlier this week a rumour began circulating suggesting that Israel had convinced the current US administration to oppose Hosni's nomination. According to leaks the Bush administration has already started a counter campaign and is keen to convince Barack Obama's incoming administration, as well as some European and Latin American countries, to follow its lead.

The rumours raise two important questions: are they true, and if so, why now?

An official source who requested anonymity confirmed the US position towards Hosni's nomination and told Al-Ahram Weekly that Washington had asked Egypt to reconsider Hosni's candidacy and nominate someone else. Should Hosni succeed in gaining the post, the US and several other countries have threatened to reconsider their relationship with UNESCO.

Official sources also assert that in the corridors of UNESCO's Paris headquarters Israeli representatives have been running after UNESCO members trying to canvas them to vote against Hosni. The sources say the anti-Hosni campaign increased in intensity after a number of Mediterranean, European, African and Asian countries announced their support for Egypt's minister of culture.

Some Arab and Egyptian intellectuals have been angered by the reports and have determined to send a letter to current UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura and UN Secretary- General Ban Ki-Moon expressing their displeasure.

Salah Eissa, editor-in-chief of Al-Qahira, views the anti-Hosni campaign as evidence of "Israel's desire to accelerate its revenge" after Hosni banned the Israeli film The Band's Visit from participating in the Cairo International Film Festival. Throughout his 21-year tenure as minister of culture Hosni has constantly linked cultural normalisation to a just settlement of the Palestinian cause

"Why does the US adopt such a position despite friendly relations with Egypt, especially on the cultural level?" asks Eissa. "I am afraid that the US position can have a negative impact on countries that have already expressed support for Hosni."

Eissa suggests that Egypt must go to extra lengths to promote its candidate, establishing a strong media campaign to abort the Israeli plot against Hosni and calling on Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Arab League to exert diplomatic efforts to convince the new US administration not to adopt the current administration's position.

Ahmed Refaat, a former Egyptian ambassador to UNESCO and a member at the National Council for Human Rights, is less concerned, believing that rumours concerning the US position and Israel's counter campaign will not effect Hosni's chances. First, he says, the US administration knows that it does not have any influence on world opinion, nor on the incoming administration.

"It is only a few months until Obama takes office," says Refaat. If the rumours are true, he argues, they are no more than an attempt by Bush and his cronies to save face before the international community ahead of their departure from office leaving eight years of failed policies, an economic crisis and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Why would the new US administration start its tenure by antagonising Egypt?" he asks. "The new administration is led by President Barack Obama and its secretary of state is Hillary Clinton. Egypt can easily understand their policies and vise versa." He suggested that Egypt open diplomatic channels with the new US administration to calmly discuss political issues, among which is Hosni's nomination.

Mustafa El-Feki, head of the People's Assembly Foreign Relations Committee, told the Weekly that Israel and the US misunderstand Hosni's policy as Egypt's minister of culture. "He is the one who rescued, resurrected and returned Egypt's temples, churches, synagogues and mosques to their original glory. How can they accuse him of being anti- Semitic when, like all Arabs, he is himself a Semite?" asks El-Feki.

The US, he argues, always opposes those of independent character standing for international posts, citing the experiences of Boutros Boutros-Ghali at the UN and Mohamed El-Baradei at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Last summer Hosni was accused by Israeli newspapers of upping diplomatic tension between Egypt and Israel when he was quoted as saying he would be happy to burn Israeli books himself. In a recent interview in the Weekly Hosni defended his position: "It is an example of the kind of hyperbole common in Egyptian slang," he said.

When in English you say go to hell you do not literally mean to escort the person to whom you are talking. When the French say va te bruler they have no intention of burning themselves."

"As Egypt's minister of culture I have always been clear that we will pursue normalisation with Israel when a comprehensive peace treaty has been signed. I am not against normalisation per se but the timing is crucial."

Hosni says that he is depending on France in the 2009 UNESCO elections "as the wall that will stand against any countries acting against democracy".

"France will not allow such a situation. It is a beacon of democracy. Electing Obama is a real example of democracy in the US and I hope that the new US administration will take a different position to the current one.

"If I do not win the post because of a plot I will be very proud," Hosni continued.

"It is not US practice to comment publicly on how it will vote on candidates for international organisations," a spokesperson at the US Embassy in Cairo told the Weekly.

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