September 21, 2009 / 6:32 PM / 10 years ago

UNESCO split over Egyptian's leadership bid

* UNESCO board split 50-50 on Hosni leadership bid

* Final round of voting on Tuesday

By Crispian Balmer

PARIS, Sept 21 (Reuters) - The United Nations agency for culture and education was divided on Monday over the leadership bid of Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, who said last year he would burn Israeli books.

Half the members of UNESCO’s 58-strong executive board voted for Hosni, who is backed by the African Union and the League of Arab States, while the other 29 chose Bulgaria’s Irina Gueorguieva Bokova in a fourth round of voting.

Hosni’s attempt to become the Arab world’s first director-general at UNESCO has won support for sending a positive signal to the Muslim world, and Arab media have touted him as someone who would foster cultural dialogue.

But his bid met with outrage from Jewish organisations who accuse him of anti-Semitism, while press freedom activists say he has turned a blind eye to censorship in Egypt.

“There was no anti-Egyptian feeling in the room but it’s obviously a very delicate position. I expect there will be a lot of lobbying overnight to try and sort this out,” a European delegate told Reuters at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris.

The United States and European countries — with the exception of France, Egypt’s close ally — have discreetly expressed their discomfort with Hosni’s candidacy.

On Sunday, Austria’s Benita Ferrero-Waldner dropped out of the race to avoid splitting the European vote, urging members to respect UNESCO’s “moral values and ideas”.

UNESCO’s board will come together on Tuesday night for a fifth and final round of voting.

Apart from saying last year in an angry exchange with a member of parliament that he would burn Israeli books if he found them in Egyptian libraries, Hosni has also been quoted as calling Israeli culture “inhuman”.

An abstract painter who has served as culture minister for more than two decades, Hosni said on his website that he regretted the comments. Some prominent figures such as French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld have publicly accepted his apology. (Additional reporting by Sophie Hardach; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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