Egypt UNESCO Loss Stirs Debate On Ties With Israel

Since he lost a high-profile bid to become the head of the United Nation's cultural agency, UNESCO, Egypt's culture minister and his supporters have been beating the nationalist drums, proclaiming him a victim of a Jewish conspiracy aiming to undermine their country.

The message has been embraced and amplified by many in the Egyptian media who, like a large number of their fellow citizens, have a deep distrust of Israel and reject normal relations with the Jewish state even though the two countries made peace over 30 years ago.

But not everyone in Egypt is taking the bait. Critics here have even cheered Farouk Hosni's failed UNESCO bid as a rejection of this country's authoritarian government on the world stage.

Outspoken author Alaa al-Aswany reminded Egyptians that Hosni is an unelected cultural minister who is largely ignored by intellectual and artistic circles in Egypt.

"Farouk Hosni remains a real example of a figure in an authoritarian government," wrote al-Aswany in El-Shorouk newspaper. "All he cares about is pleasing the president and remaining in government, and he is willing to do this at any cost."

Al-Aswany believes there are "10,000" more qualified Egyptian candidates to run UNESCO, he told The Associated Press.

Hosni, a painter who has been Egypt's culture minister for more than two decades, was initially seen as the front-runner for the UNESCO job, which would have made him the first Arab to hold the position. But his campaign faltered over controversy about a comment he made in parliament in 2008 promising to burn any Israeli books in Egyptian libraries.

Hosni made the comment in an attempt to defend himself against charges by Egyptian lawmakers of being soft on Israel. Trying to save his UNESCO campaign, Hosni wrote in the French newspaper Le Monde that the comment was made without "intention or premeditation" and should be viewed in the context of his indignation at the suffering of the Palestinian people.

He eventually lost to Bulgaria's Irina Bokova, who gained ground at the last minute as other candidates dropped out, partly amid attempts to consolidate support for Hosni. She was chosen in a vote at the organization's Paris headquarters on Sept. 22.

The culture minister sought to portray his defeat as a global reaction to his stance against normalization of relations between Egypt and Israel.

"They should look for normalization with anyone else," Hosni told the independent newspaper El-Youm El-Sabeh. "I am clear. No normalization before a just peace."

Normalization is a dirty word in many circles in Egypt. Journalists in particular feel they must shoulder the responsibility of reminding Egyptians that peace with Israel was forced on them and remains a bitter reality.

"Israel's goal remains to poison Egypt's relations with the other African nations, Palestinians, Arabs and Americans," prominent writer and editorialist Makram Mohammad Ahmed wrote in the state-owned daily El-Ahram.

"It's because they know that the Egyptian peace with Israel remains tough to swallow for the majority of Egyptians because of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians," he wrote.

Even journalists who normally criticize the Egyptian regime have rallied behind Hosni, making him a symbol of anti-normalization and a champion of the Palestinian cause.

Magdy el-Galad of El-Masry El-Youm newspaper went as far as suggesting that Israel's famed intelligence agency, Mossad, penetrated UNESCO to influence its decision, even though Israel promised not to stand in the way of Hosni's bid.

"Why do we always delude ourselves that Israel has a hand that will reach out with peace at any time?" el-Galad wrote.

Only a handful of writers, most of them at the independent El-Shorouk newspaper, have dared to discuss what they call the real reasons for Hosni's loss _ namely the bankrupt nature of the Egyptian regime itself.

Mohamme Esmat at El-Shorouk called Hosni the "son of a cultural institution that doesn't believe in pluralism or freedom in their true sense."