Bulgarian wins heated UNESCO leadership race

A career diplomat from Bulgaria has won a suspenseful and drawn-out race to lead the UN agency for culture and education, beating out an Egyptian candidate whose one-time threat to burn Israeli books had galvanized opposition.

Egyptian minister who threatened to burn Israeli books loses 31-27

Bulgarian's Irina Bokova speaks after her election as new director general of UNESCO in Paris on Tuesday. (Jacques Brinon/Associated Press)

A career diplomat from Bulgaria won a suspenseful and drawn-out race to lead the UN agency for culture and education on Tuesday, beating out an Egyptian candidate whose one-time threat to burn Israeli books had galvanized opposition.

In a fifth round of secret balloting Tuesday, Bulgaria's ambassador to France, Irina Bokova, defeated Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny for the leadership of UNESCO. The vote was 31-27, the organization's media office said.

Bokova, 57, will become UNESCO's first woman director general and the first from the former Soviet bloc. She was her country's foreign minister for a brief period in 1996-1997, and also helped negotiate Bulgaria's entry into the European Union and NATO. Her four-year term will begin Nov. 15.

The race was tight and closely watched, with a flurry of secretive diplomatic efforts between each round, allegations of fraud and an uproar over Hosny's candidacy. Critics raised Egypt's contentious record of cultural censorship and accused him of being anti-Israel.

Officials were prepared to draw pick at random

Bokova and Hosny tied on Monday night — and if Tuesday's vote had also been a draw, officials were prepared to pick a name at random from a bag.

The winner immediately sought to restore unity after the divisive race, speaking of her "respect and friendship" for Hosny and praising his campaign ideas. For months, Hosny had been considered the favourite.

"I never believed in the idea of a clash of civilizations," Bokova said, adding that her leadership of UNESCO would be geared at mutual understanding and cultural dialogue.

"UNESCO is about tolerance," she said.

Egypt's Culture Minister Farouk Hosny told the Egyptian parliament last year he would personally burn any Israeli book he found in Egypt's famed Library of Alexandria. ((Ricardo Moraes/Associated Press))

Suspicions of fraud rose as the unexpectedly intense race unfolded at the agency's Paris headquarters.

A UNESCO delegate told The Associated Press that at least one person was ejected from the agency's building by UNESCO security staff for trying to bribe delegates on Monday. The official said several UNESCO member states had complained to the director general about the bribery attempts.

Elizabeth Longworth, executive director of the office of UNESCO's director general, refused to discuss the issue on the telephone, saying she was too busy.

A UNESCO spokeswoman denied there was hard evidence of bribery. "There have been rumours to that effect," but no formal complaint has surfaced, said spokeswoman Sue Williams.

She said reports that someone was ejected Monday for unethical behaviour had been investigated and found to be groundless.

Hosny apologized for book-burning remark

The outcry against Hosny focused on his threat in the Egyptian parliament last year to personally burn any Israeli book he found in Egypt's famed Library of Alexandria. Hosny, a painter who has been Egypt's culture minister for more than two decades, made the comment in an attempt to defend himself against charges by Egyptian lawmakers of being soft on Israel.

He later apologized for the remark, saying it was spontaneous and a manifestation of his anger at Palestinian suffering. But critics kept up the pressure, accusing him of several anti-Semitic comments over the years.

Bokova gained ground at the last minute as other candidates dropped out, partly because of efforts to find a strong challenger to Hosny.

Bokova speaks fluent English, Russian, Spanish and French. Her father was a Communist Party official who was editor-in-chief of the party newspaper. She joined the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry's UN and disarmament department in 1976, and witnessed Bulgaria's transformation from an Eastern bloc nation to an EU member.

Her win must be validated at the UNESCO general conference planned for Oct. 15, the organization's media office said. She is to replace current leader Koichiro Matsuura of Japan on Nov. 15.