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Egypt's UNESCO Candidate Has Domestic Critics Also


Members of the United Nation's cultural organization, UNESCO, will cast ballots Thursday in the first round of voting for a new leader. One-time front-runner, Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny is facing opposition at home and abroad.

It is easy to argue that Egypt, with so many world cultural sites, should head the organization.

Artist Farouk Hosny, Egypt's culture minister for more than 20 years would appear to be an obvious candidate.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made Hosny's nomination a point of national pride. Others, including Egyptian journalist and novelist Youssef El-Kaied, agree.

The writer says he hopes Hosny gets the position because Egypt deserves it, something he says is more important than the man himself.

But critics say Hosny holds opinions at odds with a core mission of UNESCO - cross-cultural understanding. They point to his comment last year that he would like to burn any Israeli books he found in Egyptian libraries.

The remark, later retracted, provoked outrage, in particular from Israel and the United States. But Hosny also has critics at home.

The culture minister had earlier raised the ire of conservative Islamists by criticizing the popularity of the hijab, or headcovering, as a step backward for Egyptian women.

It was shortly after igniting that controversy at home, he made the anti-Israel comments, a proven crowd-pleaser to many since Egypt's defeat in the 1967 war, despite the country's long history as one hospitable to Jews.

Egypt has recently been restoring that cultural legacy, most prominently, rebuilding the synagogue of Moses Ben Maimon, in Cairo.

Egypt's Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass denies any connection between the restoration and efforts to rehabilitate Hosny's image abroad.

"We are not restoring the Jewish temples because of Farouk Hosny," said Zahi Hawass. "No, we restore the Jewish temples because they belong to Egypt."

Hosny has also been criticized by secular liberals. His decades-long record as a member of the Mubarak government has raised questions about his commitment to the free flow of information - another UNESCO mission. His supporters argue he should not be held responsible for the government as a whole.

But it is the Egyptian government's pivotal role in the region that may secure his election. Israel dropped its objections to Hosny's nomination, shortly after it gained Egypt's support on stopping the flow of weapons to the Palestinian Gaza Strip.

The United States has given mixed signals on what it will do, ultimately declining to take a public stand on what will be a secret vote.

Novelist Youssef el-Kaied says he understands that many factors go into such decisions.

The writer says there are several female candidates for the post and the organization has never had a woman as its leader - something he says could boost the women's chances.

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