Page last updated at 13:15 GMT, Monday, 7 September 2009 14:15 UK

Israel row looms over Unesco race

Farouk Hosny
Farouk Hosny has been Egypt's top cultural official since 1987

The race for the leadership of Unesco, the UN's cultural arm, has begun in Paris with controversy surrounding one of the front-running candidates.

Farouk Hosny, Egypt's culture minister, made a pledge in 2008 to burn Israeli books in Egyptian libraries.

He has since expressed "solemn regret" but has been criticised by Jewish European groups and US commentators.

The Executive Board's 58 members will interview each of the nine candidates and then vote in a secret ballot.

Mr Hosny says on his website that he is a man of peace.

"I have been serving as minister of culture in a state that made peace with Israel and is persistently endeavouring to give precedence to dialogue over violence," he says.


Opposition to Mr Hosny's candidature comes from Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel as well as prominent Jewish intellectuals Bernard-Henri Levy and Claude Lanzmann.

They wrote in Le Monde newspaper that "the international community must spare itself the shame of appointing Farouk Hosni to the post of Unesco director general".

Elie Wiesel
Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel has led protests against Hosny's candidature

Farouk Hosny says that his remarks were taken out of context and that people should not judge him on them alone.

"Do not look at one sentence. Review 27 years spent in the service of culture and make an assessment of what I did in the service of humanity, creativity, writers and books," he says.

But it this 27 year long record that others say deems him an inappropriate candidate.

Reporters Without Borders argue that Unesco's mandate of promoting free speech is at conflict with Mr Hosny's record.

"Farouk Hosny needs to show that he is committed to these values, something he has not managed to do during the past 25 years" the organisation says.

"He needs to demonstrate a full commitment to free expression by publicly condemning press freedom violations and arrests of bloggers."

While media criticism of the government is commonplace in Egypt, press laws which allow prison sentences for libelling the president remain in place.

In recent years, numerous Egyptian bloggers have been arrested, including Wael Abbas in April 2009 and Abdel Kareem Soliman in 2007 who was sentenced to four years in prison for insulting Islam and the president.

Other candidates

Hosni's main rival for the post is thought to be European Commissioner for External Relations and ex-Austrian foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Other candidates in the running are Lithuania's Ambassador to Unesco Ina Marciulionyte, former Bulgarian Foreign Minister Irina Bokova, former Algerian Foreign Minister Mohammed Bedjaoui and former Russian deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Yakovenko.

There are two candidates from Africa, Tanzania's Sospeter Muhongo and Benin's ambassador to Unesco, Noureini Tidjani-Serpos.

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