Israeli book-burning row clouds Egypt's bid for UN job

Egyptian Culture Minister Faruq Hosni’s bid to become the Arab world’s first head of Unesco, the United Nations’ culture body, is being damaged by a row over comments he made on burning Israeli books.

He has the backing of Arab and African countries but “the European bloc is against him, his election could be problematic”, a Unesco source told Agence France-Presse, adding, however, that his appointment was still possible.

Some European states had previously expressed support for Hosni’s bid to replace Japan’s Koichiro Matsuura, who has headed the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation since 1999.

But last week three prominent French intellectuals—Nobel Peace Price laureate Elie Wiesel, philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and filmmaker Claude Lanzmann—called for his candidature to be blocked.

Hosni, who is also an artist, was a “dangerous man”, the opposite of a “man of peace”, they wrote in an opinion piece in Le Monde newspaper.

They quoted him as saying Israeli culture was inhuman, aggressive and racist and was “based on a simple principle, stealing that which does not belong to it and then claiming it as its own”.

They also said he had made remarks about “the infiltration of Jews in international media”.

Hosni, who has been culture minister for the past 21 years, is accused by Islamists in Egypt of being too liberal and is also shunned by intellectuals hostile to the regime.

He responded to the French intellectuals a week later, writing a piece in the same newspaper to apologise for his book-burning comments and arguing that appointing him, an Arab, to the job would be a “formidable message of hope”.

“I want to solemnly say that I regret the words that I used,” he wrote.

“I am a man of peace. I know that peace passes by understanding and respect. In the name of these values I want to go back on the words that I used in May 2008, which were taken as an appeal to burn Hebrew books.
These words shocked some and I understand that,” he wrote.

He said in the commentary that the statement had not been premeditated and was made to show “indignation” over the plight of Palestinian people.

“If my words have sometimes been very hard, they have to be placed in the context of this tragedy,” he said, adding that he abhorred “racism, negating others or any move to harm Jewish culture or any culture”.

Israel protested at the time over his comments.

But an Israeli official said this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had dropped Israel’s objection to Hosni’s candidacy after a personal request by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at a meeting this month.

Egypt was the first Arab state to sign a peace deal with Israel, but since the 1979 pact it has blocked mostly cultural ties with its neighbour.

Unesco’s executive council will interview all candidates and then its 58 members, who represent the 193 states belonging to Unesco, will vote for a winner.

Their choice must then be ratified by a Unesco general assembly in October.—Sapa-AFP

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