Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

France, Egypt and UNESCO

The last-minute candidature of the French minister of culture to head UNESCO is highly irregular and a slap in the face for Arab countries, particularly Egypt

Two weeks ago in this column I observed that the West will never, under any circumstances, allow an Arab candidate to fill the post of director-general of UNESCO. This is because the international educational and cultural organisation is one of the arenas for the fight to preserve Arab cultural heritage in Jerusalem in the face of Israel’s drive to efface this heritage as it relentlessly pushes to Judaicise that city and all other parts of the occupied Arab territories.

As I pointed out in that column, the US’s pro-Israeli bias is so strong that it defied the collective condemnation in UNESCO of Israel’s actions against Arab culture and society, suspended funding for that organisation and withdrew from it in “solidarity” with Israel. Needless to say, this was at a time when there was not even a prospective director-general from the Arab region whose cultural heritage is being systematically abused in the occupied territories in breach of UNESCO’s own laws and without stirring any international outcry in spite of the fact that the destruction is not all that different from that being wrought by terrorist groups against human heritage in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Whenever an Arab candidate ran for the top UNESCO position, Israel managed to rally Western nations behind it to obstruct that candidate’s prospects. I certainly have no desire to see a repeat of what I personally witnessed inside the UNESCO building in Paris in 2009 when the US ambassador there summoned the ambassadors of all the member states of the UNESCO executive board, one after the other, to ask them not to vote for the Egyptian candidate at the time, Farouk Hosni, who up to that point had been expected to win with near certainty.

Unfortunately, today, we find France moving to block the Egyptian candidate. Suddenly, at the very last minute before nominations were closed, France nominated its minister of culture, Audrey Azoulay, to stand against the Egyptian candidate, Ambassador Moushira Khattab. It was as though the French were saying, if the turn has come for an Arab country to head UNESCO, our candidate is of Moroccan origin. If the UNESCO chief has to be a woman, our candidate is also a woman just like the Egyptian candidate. If the Egyptian candidate has extensive experience interacting with international organisations, our candidate deals directly with culture.

At the beginning of March, it looked like Italy was going to field a candidate: Former Italian culture minister Francesco Rutelli. Rutelli had previously met with current UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova to submit to her two project proposals on behalf of Rome and UNESCO circles had begun to view him as the European candidate. However, in the last moment, France stepped forward instead of Italy to nominate the French minister of culture.

Rumours of the French move had already begun to circulate last week. I asked my friend, French Ambassador to Egypt Andre Baran, what he thought of these reports. He was surprised and said that he had never even heard of them. I told him that if the French do nominate a candidate, they would not succeed. I explained that Egypt had nominated a candidate for the UNESCO post months ago and that UNESCO circles believe that she is the best person for the job at this time and that Egypt has already secured the support of a number of regional blocs. In addition, I said, the Egyptian candidate has already campaigned extensively among the member states of the executive board and has won the admiration of the heads-of-state and foreign ministers with whom she met.

In all events, the French ambassador doubted that his country would actually field a candidate. According to convention, countries where UN agencies are based do not field candidates to head those organisations, he said. I reminded him of French philosopher René Maheu who was UNESCO director-general in 1962. This was the exception that proved the rule, my friend countered, adding that he personally doubted whether it would be repeated.

I have no doubt that the French ambassador was being perfectly sincere. In the past couple of days, there surfaced reports in the French press that the nomination was the result of a personal initiative by President Francois Hollande. The nomination letter had evidently been sent from Elysée Palace to Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault for his signature with no discussion with the Foreign Ministry beforehand, even though that ministry is directly involved in this matter.

In spite of the special bond of friendship between Egypt and France that leads us to discard the notion that France would deliberately oppose the Egyptian candidate in such a manner, one is still compelled to register a number of observations. Firstly, the French president took that step despite the many reservations that had been aired. In an article entitled “The Élysée pushes Audrey Azoulay to be a candidate to head UNESCO”, Le Figaro of 16 March confirms that the president’s office “imposed” this candidature against the recommendations of the Foreign Ministry. The newspaper cited a European diplomat in Paris as saying, “This candidature is going to create a storm at UNESCO. [The Arab countries] are going to interpret it as an unacceptable provocation.”

Secondly, in issuing this decision in his final days in office, President Hollande is forcing a commitment on the person who succeeds him in May. In other words, his successor will have to fight the battle for a decision that was not his own and he will have to begin his term with a needless confrontation with Arab countries that have strong bonds of friendship with France, Egypt above all.

Thirdly, although the Arabs are not particularly concerned by the religious affiliation of the French candidate, the French decision has inevitably imposed a religious dimension into the fight for the UNESCO director-general’s post. A French Jew of Moroccan origin will be vying against an Egyptian Muslim. This is certainly a confrontation that we can all do without at this time when the world is gripped by an unprecedented flare-up in religious and sectarian antagonisms, a phenomenon that we should be trying to end rather than to inflame by creating confrontations between Muslims and Jews.

Finally, as a reminder to the Arabs, Moushira Khattab is not the first Arab candidate to be challenged in this manner. Others from diverse backgrounds have preceded her, most notably Farouk Hosny and Ismail Serageddin from Egypt, Ghazi Al-Qoseibi from Saudi Arabia and Aziza Benani from Morocco. The common denominator in all these cases is the determination to keep the Arabs from heading UNESCO.

How long will the Arabs remain silent in the face of the provocation that the French press warned of? Will this induce us to adopt a unified Arab position? Could we agree on a single Arab candidate rather than the four who are currently in the running and who will divide the Arab vote before dividing the rest of the votes in UNESCO’s 58-member executive board, which is responsible for electing the next director-general?

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