Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1344, (11 - 17 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Paris debates

Amid the battle for the French presidency, another battle has been playing out, for who will next head UNESCO, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Last week in France concluded with the heated debate between presidential candidates Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. The debate shifted the balance in the race, having exposed the hollowness of the electoral platform of the extreme right candidate, Le Pen, whose political star soared in March when she moved ahead of five other candidates to become the one who would face off with Macron in the final round of the elections.

Macron, running as a liberal centrist independent, stood on a firm ground of facts and information as he argued the points of his political platform and, thereby, inspired considerable confidence. Le Pen, by contrast, spent most of her time in the debate attacking her opponent, in language, moreover, that verged on slander, while the majority of viewers found her defence of her programme unconvincing. Opinion polls conducted after the debate predicted that more than 60 per cent of voters would cast their ballot for Macron on Sunday, 7 May.

Shortly before the French presidential debate there was another series of debate-like encounters between the nine candidates for the post of director-general of UNESCO. The members of the UNESCO executive board (consisting of representatives from 58 states), convening in UNESCO headquarters in Paris, accorded each candidate 90 minutes during which the candidates offered an approximately 15-minute-long presentation of their “vision” for the organisation and what they hoped to achieve if elected director-general, after which they fielded questions from members of the board.

I followed these sessions as keenly as I followed the presidential debates. However, I was particularly interested in six of the sessions: those allocated to the four Arab candidates as well as those allocated to the French candidate, Audrey Azoulay, and the Chinese candidate, Qian Tang. Azoulay, the minister of education in the outgoing government of President Hollande, was forwarded by France at the very last minute before the nominations period ended when the Egyptian candidate, Mushira Khattab, was tipped as the most likely winner. The candidacy of Qian Tang, assistant director-general of UNESCO for education, is significant in view of China’s considerable influence in this UN organisation because of Beijing’s huge financial contributions to it. The Arab candidates, apart from Khattab (former minister of family and population of Egypt), are former minister of culture of Qatar Hamad bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Kawari, who had also served as his country’s ambassador to France; Vera Al-Khouri, adviser to the Ministry of Culture of Lebanon; and Saleh Al-Hasnawi, former minister of health of Iraq.

I along with many others in UNESCO felt that the Egyptian candidate stood head and shoulders above the others. Her presentation covered all aspects of UNESCO’s work and reflected her thorough and realistic understanding of how to manage it. What most impressed audiences was her confidence and poise throughout the session. If the “vision” she presented at the outset was outstanding, in and of itself, her true strengths revealed themselves during the question and answer session that followed her 15-minute presentation. She fielded the questions posed to her by representatives from different geographical zones intelligently and adeptly, answering each one directly and succinctly, and supporting her answers with facts and figures and references to relevant provisions of various UNESCO agreements. Without delving into extensive detail, she also referred to her own practical career experiences and accomplishments in relation to the UN and other international organisations and her own country. In contrast to the Iraqi candidate, who never smiled once during his 90-minute session, or the French candidate who remained as cold as the French weather at the time, Khattab’s smiling face radiated the warmth of the oriental sun.

Although Azoulay is of Moroccan origin, her presentation had no bearing on the Arab world. Yet the prevailing opinion in UNESCO is that the time has come for a representative of this region to head UNESCO, not least because of this region’s ancient civilisational heritage. Interestingly, it was the Moroccan delegate in UNESCO who asked Azoulay, indirectly, whether it was right for France to attempt to block the way of the Arab world which has never had a chance to lead UNESCO while France held the top post for over a decade, through the person of René Maheu (director-general from 1962 to 1974). The question seemed to take the French candidate by surprise. Azoulay, herself, comes from a prominent Moroccan Jewish family. Her father, Andre Azoulay, was an advisor to the late Moroccan monarch King Hassan II and the architect of Morocco’s relationship with Israel. However, the candidate shed that affiliation as easily as one discards a piece of unwanted clothing and countered that there was no agreement or law that stipulated that an Arab had to be the next UNESCO director-general. She added that the selection of the director-general should not be based on nationality, colour or faith but rather solely on competence.

The person who most directly and intelligently broached the subject of the need to give the Arab world a chance at the helm of UNESCO was the Lebanese candidate Vera Al-Khouri. Speaking in her capacity as a representative of a region with ancient culture and civilisation, she said it was high time to give this region the opportunity to offer its expertise to UNESCO for the first time in the 70-year long history of this organisation. Neither the Qatari or the Iraqi candidate mentioned the subject. The Qatari candidate drew on his previous ambassadorial experience in France and his extensive interaction with international organisations. He also played on his relations in the business sphere, indicating that many in this sphere would be prepared to fund numerous UNESCO projects. The Iraqi candidate basically restricted his presentation to his experience as an Iraqi delegate in UNESCO, in contrast to Khattab who, naturally, spoke of Egypt and its rich cultural heritage, but primarily focused on her many and diverse career achievements which attest to her worthiness for the senior UNESCO post.

The Chinese candidate appeared somewhat reserved. But I found his English unexpectedly fluent and easy to follow. He offered a calm and conventional “vision” in which he addressed a crucial subject that all other candidates addressed as well, namely how to develop the UNESCO administrative apparatus and how to resolve problems within the organisation through dialogue.

The question now is where are the Egyptian media as the UNESCO battle plays out? The French press has already begun to follow developments closely. What about the Egyptian press? Is not Egypt a stakeholder in this campaign? Is not Egypt’s name on the line in that battle which is not receiving the necessary degree of attention among our journalistic and media community? Why have none of our television stations given airtime to those presentation/interview sessions that have been recorded in all the official UN languages, of which Arabic is one? Surely it would be easy for a television station to ask UNESCO for a copy of these recordings and broadcast at least segments of them for viewers for whom the substance would be more edifying than the shouting and cursing matches that fill our talk shows. Indeed, why should Egyptians not be as keen to follow the race for the top UNESCO seat, in which one of their fellow citizens is competing, as they are to follow a football match?

The UNESCO battle is in its last stage. A different strategy is needed now from the one used at the outset. Why this is so and what exactly is needed will be the subject of my next column.

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