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Egypt's bid to lead UNESCO raises hackles

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(PARIS) - The race to lead the UN's culture and education agency UNESCO kicks off this week amid controversy over charges that anti-Israel comments from Egypt's Faruq Hosni make him unfit for the top job.

Egypt's culture minister for the past 22 years, Hosni is lobbying to cement his status as the frontrunner and become the next director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Representatives from 58 nations who make up UNESCO's executive council are meeting in Paris as of Monday and a first round of voting to elect a successor to Japan's Koichiro Matsuura is set for September 17.

In all nine candidates are running for the post, but Hosni's leading bid ran into trouble in May when Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel joined two French intellectuals to oppose his candidacy.

Wiesel, Bernard-Henri Levy and Claude Lanzmann wrote in Le Monde newspaper that "the international community must spare itself from the shame of appointing Faruq Hosni to the post of UNESCO director general."

The clamour surrounds comments Hosni made in May 2008, vowing to "burn Israeli books" himself if he found any in Egyptian libraries.

Hosni has since voiced regret for the comments and sought to explain that they were uttered in the context of an exchange in parliament with hardliners from the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Wiesel, Levy and Lanzmann have described the comments as just an example of the "many countless statements of the same ilk made during Faruq Hosni's career" and branded him a "dangerous man."

Those comments, they argued, "precede him as he vies for a role as a cultural unifying force across today's world" at UNESCO, which seeks to promote global understanding through culture, science and education.

Hosni's main rival for the post is European Commissioner for External Relations, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, but the choice of Egypt's candidate has won much support in Europe as an attempt to reach out to the Muslim world.

A former Austrian foreign minister, Ferrero-Waldner has acknowledged that she does not have the full backing of European governments, some of which support rival bids by Lithuania's UNESCO ambassador Ina Marciulionyte and Bulgarian ambassador to France Irina Bokova.

France must remain neutral on the issue as it is the host country for UNESCO but officials have said privately that Paris favours Hosni for the job.

In an interview in Cairo, Hosni sought to fend off the accusations leveled against him and said his candidacy was "based on a basic philosophy which is reconciliation between peoples."

As head of UNESCO, he would encourage "a rapprochement in the whole region, without exception," Hosni said.

A recent article in the prestigious American Foreign Policy magazine described Hosni's bid as "scandalous" and accused him of echoing the "rampant Judeophobia" of Egyptian intellectual circles.

Amid the brouhaha, the United States has refused to publicly back a contender, but a State Department spokesman took pains to point out that the "right candidate" must have a "demonstrated commitment to UNESCO's core principles."

About five rounds of voting are expected to take place to choose the new director general and the appointment is to be endorsed by UNESCO's 193-member assembly in October.

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