Egypt’s culture minister, Farouk Hosni, who last year said he would burn any Israeli books he found in the country’s libraries, is the favourite to win the UN’s top cultural post in an election that begins next week.
Surprisingly, Mr Hosni’s chances of becoming head of Unesco have been boosted by Israel, of all countries, despite being for years an object of his scorn.
In this case, Israel’s strategic relations with Cairo appear to have trumped all other considerations, including concern that Mr Hosni might use his post to undermine Israel’s international standing in culture and science.
In its initial response to Mr Hosni’s candidacy, announced last year, Israel repeatedly insisted it was inconceivable that someone who advocated burning books could head the organisation charged with protecting world culture.
But in May, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu dropped Israel’s opposition after a summit meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
“This was Netanyahu’s call,” said an Israeli government official who requested anonymity. “We don’t know what Israel got in return, whether it concerned security, the border, Gaza, the international scene or the Palestinian issue. I assume some deal was made but we don’t even know that.”
Mr Hosni has been at the forefront of opposition to “normalisation” with Israel during his 22-year tenure as culture minister, arguing that no cultural ties should exist until the Palestinian issue is resolved.
But in recent months, with the Unesco election looming, his ministry announced it will encourage the translation of David Grossman and Amos Oz into Arabic. It has also speeded up restoration of synagogues in Cairo, including the Maimonides synagogue and yeshiva in Old Cairo, the Karaite Synagogue and the Adli Synagogue.
In May 2008, in response to a question from an Islamic fundamentalist legislator, Mr Hosni declared in the Egyptian parliament: “I’d burn Israeli books myself if I found any in libraries in Egypt.”
He said later he did not mean to be taken literally and apologised in a Le Monde article in May.
But Israelis who served in Cairo believe he has a long track-record of animosity.
“He is a person who doesn’t like us at all,” said Sasson Somekh, former director of the Israeli Academic Centre in Cairo. “He is one of the reasons no normalisation came to the fore. Everything we did was cancelled and he seemed to be at the crossroads of this.
“I don’t want to interfere, but I do want to know whether, on the morning after the election, he will do the same things he has done for 30 years.”
Shimon Shamir, former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, said: “All those Egyptians and Israelis who have been working for intercultural dialogue, and those Egyptians who suffered pressure from the anti-normalisation campaign in Egypt, of which Hosni is a part, will be deeply disappointed” by Israel’s stance.
But there is also at least one Jewish group backing Mr Hosni. The restoration work and a recent promise to allow all archives of Egyptian Jewish communities to be accessed through the Egyptian national library has earned him an endorsement from the France-based Nebi Daniel International Association (AIND), which promotes the preservation of Egyptian Jewish cultural and religious heritage.
AIND said it “gratefully acknowledges Mr Hosni’s actions to preserve the Jewish heritage in Egypt and wishes him good luck for the election as the director-general of Unesco.”
Israel’s reversal came despite a plea by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi and Claude Lanzmann, urging the nations of the world to prevent Mr Hosni from leading Unesco.
“Farouk Hosni is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue and culture. Farouk Hosni is a dangerous man, an inciter of hearts and minds,” they wrote in Le Monde in May.
Mr Hosni has said in interviews that if elected, he would “encourage rapprochement in the whole region without exception”.
The first round of voting is on September 17.