Monday,22 October, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)
Monday,22 October, 2018
Issue 1365, (19 - 25 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

What happened in UNESCO

Egypt was subject to a sophisticated three-pronged attack to dispense with the prospects of Ambassador Mushira Khattab heading up UNESCO, writes Mohamed Salmawy

اقرأ باللغة العربية

If we are to properly assess Egypt’s recent experience in fielding a candidate for the director-general post at UNESCO, we have to determine what exactly happened in this battle. How was it that the French candidate ultimately won after her nomination had been greeted with dismay and criticism, not just among the Arabs but also within France, as manifested in both the French press and the French Senate. What made countries that were initially uncomfortable with that nomination come around to voting in her favour? It is also important to understand the map of political pressure  — indeed, political blackmail at times — that was exerted during the campaign and we need to assess Egypt’s performance in that campaign as well. Finally, we need to discern what lies ahead for UNESCO in the forthcoming phase, which will be totally different from anything the international organisation has experienced in the more than 70 years of its existence. 

Here, we will focus on the first question: what happened to produce these results? Firstly, the Jewish lobby, which has consistently blocked all previous efforts to elect an Arab as UNESCO director-general, changed its tactics in order to attain the same end. If, in 2009, that lobby had no problem with proclaiming loud and clear its opposition to the strongest Arab candidate at the time, former Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni, this time it chose to operate more furtively. As we know, the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (the Representative Council of the Institutions of the Jews of France, CRIF) declared its support for Emanuel Macron during the French presidential elections. At the same time, it asked him to support the French candidate, Audrey Azoulay, who is of Moroccan Jewish descent and who had been nominated by former president Francois Hollande. CRIF also asked Macron to pledge that, if elected president, he would do all in his power to put an end to what the Jewish organisation called UNESCO’s anti-Israeli, pro-Arab bias. Although it was well known that the Jewish lobby had pitted its full weight behind the French candidate, there had been no overt expression of this until the Israeli ambassador to UNESCO  Carmel Shama-Hacohen, in a reckless fit of candidness, said that the Arabs were a danger to UNESCO, reserving special mention for Egypt and Qatar. He quickly relented the slip which departed from the surreptitious style that the Jewish lobby had opted for this time. 

The second factor that characterised the Jewish lobby’s approach to blocking the Arabs’ prospects this time was its ploy of artificially building up the strength of an adversary in order to knock him out in the final round. Many observers were surprised, at first, by the rapid lead gained by the Qatari candidate who had been the front runner until the last round. What the observers and the Qatari candidate, himself, did not realise was that many of the votes that had been cast in his favour would switch over to the French candidate. Was that by design? Were some votes deliberately channelled towards the Qatari candidate so that they could be redirected in favour of France at a later phase in the voting? As for knockout tactics, they involved a three-pronged attack. Doha was accused of buying votes: “Le Jeune Afrique” published a list of UNESCO members who had allegedly received money from Qatar. It was accused, secondly, of anti-Semitism and, thirdly, there came reminders that Qatar is one of the countries that supports Islamist extremism. The French news site Atlantico claimed, falsely, that the Qatari candidate was a radical Islamist and that he wrote the introduction to an anti-Semitic book. On top of this, Israel’s UNESCO ambassador, as we have noted, charged that Egypt and Qatar posed a danger to UNESCO, after which the US announced its withdrawal from the organisation, citing the organisation’s anti-Israel bias due to mounting Arab influence over the organisation. 

Naturally, France, the country of culture and enlightenment, would have much a much easier race if it were juxtaposed against Qatar than if it were juxtaposed against another a country with a cultural and civilisational heritage as old and great as that of Egypt. The French and Qatari candidates met during the most heated moments in the campaign. Although this was not publicised, the Qatari candidate himself boasted of French support for him and posted a picture of his meeting with Azoulay on his Twitter account. Many were surprised, but they were clearly unaware of the French stratagem of using Qatar in order to secure the victory of its own candidate. 

In other words, the real race in the UNESCO campaign was between Egypt and France. The original purpose of the French nomination was to keep Egypt from attaining the top UNESCO post after it became clear how strong the Egyptian candidate was. The French candidate was chosen precisely because she shared some important outward features, albeit not the outstanding qualifications, of the Egyptian candidate. Azoulay is a woman like Mushira Khattab and she has Arab origins, even if she constantly insisted that she was French and not Moroccan. At the same time, she insisted that there was no rule compelling the election of an Arab as UNESCO director-general and, as we know, she enjoyed the added comfort of the support of the Jewish lobby. 

In addition to the foregoing, France lobbied extensively in Africa, enabling it to obtain the votes of Francophone countries which are closely linked to France, especially in culture. So much for the African Summit resolution in July to regard Ambassador Khattab as the official candidate of the African continent. There are 17 African nations on the UNESCO executive board. Presumably all their votes should have gone to the Egyptian candidate. Yet, of the 11 votes that Egypt won in the first round from all regions, only seven or 10 on the outside were from Africa. Half the African members on the board violated the resolution adopted by their heads of state in that secret vote. 

The competition between Egypt and France reached its peak during the additional round that was dedicated to choosing which of the two would face-off against the bugbear that France had created for its purposes. When the Qatari candidate had obtained 22 votes, he could have directed some of them (not those given to him by France of course) to support the other strong Arab candidate. However, it appears that the current crisis between Doha and the Arab quartet was the determinant factor here, even though it was obvious that a face-off between Qatar and France for the world’s foremost cultural post would end in favour of France. Perhaps this is what led Egypt to give its support in the final round to France, the UNESCO seat, in spite of the fact that Paris had set Egypt in its crosshairs from the outset. 

As for the political blackmail practised by the US and Israel in this battle, which Egypt fought both professionally and honourably, this is a subject best left to another article.

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