No book-burning at UNESCO, hooray!

You may remember that several months back we ran an article on Farouk Hosny, the Egyptian Culture Minister who appeared to be front-runner in the election for the new head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. We didn’t consider Hosny a good choice because of his stated desire to burn “Israeli books in Egyptian libraries”. Bad enough if this was a youthful indiscretion, but he said it just last year. Of course, once the shit hit the fan at election time, the apologies began to roll out, but under the circumstances they appeared hollow.

A book-burner heading up UNESCO? We didn’t like it.

Irina Bokova

Irina Bokova

And neither, it appears, did the states voting. After a sustained opposition by Reporters Without Borders and other organisations, Hosny failed in his bid. It took five rounds of voting, but the new head of UNESCO, and the first woman ever appointed to the task, is Bulgaria’s former Minister for Foreign Relations, Irina Bokova. Bokova has been the Bulgarian delegate to UNESCO since 2005, and one assumes she has never tried to build a bonfire of the books that she has disagreed with.

Hosny, who would have been the first Arab to head UNESCO had he won the position, is not being gracious in defeat. One suspects sour grapes and a distorted view of reality are at the base of his accusations of conspiracy. “The organisation has become politicised,” he said. “The reality is that we waged a fantastic battle. The Egyptian candidate had the newspapers and Zionist pressures against him every day.” He added “The north always has to control the south,” stating that “the American ambassador did everything he could” to prevent his winning.

There you have it. An advocate of book-burning did not succeed to the head of the UN’s cultural department not because of the disgust most intelligent people feel at book-burning, but because of a plot to keep him down. One suspects if he’d only shut up and not shown himself to be a completely inappropriate candidate he would be head of UNESCO today. In retrospect, we can all be grateful that he didn’t have the sense to keep his feet well away from his mouth.

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Book-burning advocate may head UNESCO

The United Nations is again causing controversy with member states continuing their desire to set limits on freedom of expression. With Japanese Koichiro Matsuura stepping down as head of the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, the race is on to select a replacement.

Farouk Hosny

Farouk Hosny

The current front-runner among seven candidates is Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny, 71. It is generally accepted that it is the Arabian region’s “turn” to head UNESCO, and Hosni is supported by the Arab League and many African nations.

However it has recently come to light that just last year Hosny advocated burning books to the Egyptian Parliament; specifically, any Hebrew books found in the Alexandrian Library. “Burn these books; if there are any there, I will myself burn them in front of you.”

Hosny has since backpedalled, apologising for the remarks. His primary reason for lighting the match is the Israeli treatment of Palestine – he claims that anger at this behaviour caused him to make a spur of the moment remark; a claim that is not universally believed. An open letter from Claude Lanzmann, Bernard-Henri Levy and Elie Wiesel quote Hosny as saying in 2001: “Israeli culture is an inhuman culture… aggressive, racist, pretentious… based on a simple principle, stealing that which does not belong to it and then claiming it as its own.”

Hosny has replied in the French newspaper Le Monde, saying that “I want to solemnly say that I regret the words that I used. I am a man of peace. I know that peace comes through understanding and respect. In the name of these values I want to go back on the words that I used, which were taken as an appeal to burn Hebrew books.”

An apology is well and good – but can Hosny be believed? His stint in the Ministry of Culture has seen him censor media, films, and music – even to the extent of having heavy-metal fans arrested. How can this man be a suitable candidate for heading up the Culture programme of the United Nations? Political anger is one thing, but to allow that anger to translate into a call for book-burning is quite another – how can any candidate who has ever supported book-burning be deemed acceptable for this post? Whatever polit-speak Hosny spouts in pursuing election, his past actions speak louder than words. Hosny may have been a favourite for the post, but the current scandal being played out in European newspapers may see him outvoted as the European countries may now vote against him.

The final vote takes place in October – be sure to let your government know how you want it to vote. We’ll keep you updated!