Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1366, (26 October - 1 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Anatomy of UNESCO elections

Every ploy and underhand tactic was used to skew the result of the recent UNESCO elections. And all parties know it, writes Mohamed Salmawy


اقرأ باللغة العربية


While I was in Paris, a journalist from an news website called me up to ask me my impressions on the campaigns to elect a new UNESCO secretary-general that were in the fraught voting phase at the time. I told him that anyone who followed this electoral battle would be stunned at the tactics. All the electoral WMDs were out, I said. It was as though the UNESCO battle was the Vietnam War where the Americans used napalm, or the war against Gaza in which the Israelis dropped cluster bombs on residential quarters. Bribery, or “political money” to use the more euphemistic term, existed before in such occasions, but now reached unprecedented levels — tens of millions of dollars, according to Le Canard Enchaîné. The US and Israel resorted to another banned weapon: political blackmail (I’m not sure if there exists a euphemism). That took the form of the bomb the Americans dropped just before the last round of the elections, when it appeared that one of two candidates stood a chance of becoming the first Arab director-general of UNESCO. No one missed the significance of the timing of Washington’s announcement of its decision to withdraw from the allegedly “pro-Arab” UNESCO. Within a few hours, Israel followed suit, like a parrot. 

One can’t help but wonder why the US is the only country in the world to accuse UNESCO of being anti-Israel. What would Washington do if UNESCO were actually biased against another country, such as the Netherlands, or Pakistan or Norway. Would it withdraw? Another reason the US cited for pulling out was that the organisation was mired in debt. Now why would that be? Could it be because some member nations don’t pay their annual dues? Indeed, high on the list of delinquent countries is the US, itself, whose outstanding fees come to $0.5 billion. 

Here, we need to ask what gives Washington the right to exercise all its rights within the organisation when it fails to perform its duties? What gives it the right to meddle in the Executive Board’s business of electing the director-general? What gives it the right to vote to begin with after its failure to pay its dues year after year?

One was struck by the fact that the US did not withdraw, effective immediately, as was the case when UNESCO accepted Palestine as a member. This time, it said that it would withdraw at the end of the year, rendering the announcement of its intention to withdraw a sword over UNESCO’s neck. That threat, moreover, was only issued when the votes in favour of the Egyptian candidate were tied with those in favour of the French candidate and when the Qatari candidate was in the lead. UNESCO’s financial straits are far from new. Washington’s oft-repeated charge that the UNESCO is anti-Israel is far from new. Clearly the only reason they were marshalled into use now was to serve as a thin veneer for a flagrant attempt to twist the Executive Board members’ arms in the middle of the campaign.

The US-Israeli blackmail bid followed a surreptitious campaign launched by Jewish lobbying groups from the moment that former president François Hollande nominated the former French culture minister for the top UNESCO post. The nomination of Audrey Azoulay, of Moroccan Jewish origin, was designed to counter the alleged anti-Israeli bias. The campaign, spearheaded by the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France (the Representative Council of the Institutions of the Jews of France, CRIF), reached its peak during the electoral battle when the Israeli ambassador to UNESCO declared that the Arabs — Egypt and Qatar, specifically — were a danger to the organisation. He quickly retracted his statement because, this time, the Jewish lobby had opted for the covert approach instead of the overt approach it used in 2009 against Egyptian candidate Farouk Hosni. 

France, for its part, notched up the pressure during the last two days of the voting process. As the rounds progressed, support for the French candidate appeared to freeze at 18 votes while the votes for the Arab candidates kept increasing. According to people close to the members of the Egyptian campaign delegation, the UNESCO ambassador from a Western state personally apologised for not being able to continue his support for the Egyptian candidate. He had just received last minute instructions from his government to vote for France. This apparently followed a communication at the head-of-state level between the ambassador’s government and Paris. During the French presidential campaigns, CRIF had come out in support for Emanuel Macron in exchange for a pledge that he would address UNESCO’s “anti-Israeli” problem, as manifested in the organisation’s repeated resolutions against the relentless damage and attrition to world heritage in the Arab occupied territories caused by Israel’s systematic drive to Judaicise East Jerusalem and the West Bank and to efface their Arab character. Macron fulfilled his pledge and backed the candidate whose nomination had stirred quite a bit of consternation, even in France.

This is only part of what Egypt had to contend with during the UNESCO battle, which Egypt fought both professionally and honourably. Not one criticism was aired against Egyptian comportment throughout the campaign. Cairo, for its part, ignored the black briefcases that some of its delegation members observed passing hands during the campaign. It did not resort to arm twisting or blackmail. Countries around the world have interests in Egypt. These interests vary from one country to the next and from the political and economic to the cultural and even archaeological. Egypt could have flexed its muscles in these domains, but it preferred to fight a clean fight using legitimate assets, which were strong: the outstanding qualifications of its candidate, Egypt’s cultural qualifications as a unique repository of civilisational heritage, and the benefit that Egypt can bring to the world through UNESCO. 

If internationally banned napalm influenced the course of the Vietnam War, it didn’t keep the US from losing the war. If cluster munitions shortened the Israeli war against Gaza, they depleted support for Israel in world public opinion. If internationally banned electoral weapons influenced the UNESCO battle, the loser this time is UNESCO itself. The character and results of those elections forebode a new and very different phase in the more than 70-year-old history of the world’s foremost cultural organisation.

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