The first round of voting for a new director-general of UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, begins Thursday in Paris amid controversy over Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny, who was once a clear front-runner for the post.
But a backlash has erupted over his comment last year that he would burn Hebrew books, raising allegations of anti-Semitism and concerns over Hosny's ability to lead the international agency.
After two decades as culture minister in Egypt, Hosny was looking to ascend to lead UNESCO — the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. He quickly received a number of significant endorsements.
But in France, where UNESCO is based, intellectuals and Le Monde newspaper launched an attack on Hosny's candidacy, charging him, among other things, with making anti-Semitic statements. The most widely circulated incident involved a statement to the Egyptian parliament in May 2008, when Hosny reportedly said that if any Hebrew books were found in Egyptian libraries, he would burn them himself. He later apologized for the statement.
In an interview with the BBC's Arabic Service that was posted on his own Web site, Hosny comes across as a man trying to balance the Arab hatred of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories with his desire to present a more modern and tolerant face of Islam to the West. He said as an Arab Cabinet minister, he opposed any normalization of relations with Israel while the Palestinians continued to suffer.
But at the same time, he argued that he would be fully capable of representing Israeli culture as well as any other culture as head of UNESCO.
"As the head of a global organization, I have to represent all of its members. Israel is a member, and that means Israel will get its full rights and participation in the organization," he told the BBC.
But opposition to Hosny continued to mount. The Anti-Defamation League issued an open letter calling Hosny unfit for the position, citing what it called a "long history of expressing hostility towards Israeli culture."
When Hosny's Culture Ministry launched a very public renovation of an old Jewish synagogue in Cairo, critics called it a transparent attempt to distract attention from his controversial comments.
Le Monde launched another attack, charging the French government with playing politics by not overtly opposing Hosny's candidacy. The paper said President Nicolas Sarkozy was anxious to win the Egyptian government's support for his proposed European-Mediterranean partnership.
Cairo political scientist Mustafa Kamal Sayed says there is some irony in the fact that Hosny is being pilloried as close-minded and anti-Semitic when at home many of his critics think he is not sufficiently respectful toward the increasingly conservative brand of Islam in Egypt.
"I think it was unfortunate, the statement he made. To a certain extent, sometimes he would leave himself to his emotions, and he would say something that he would regret later," Sayed says.
As the vote neared, however, the controversy began to take on a familiar "West vs. Islam" tone. There are several other candidates seeking to head UNESCO, including some highly qualified women who are gaining strong support in Europe among those looking to see the first female head of the U.N.'s cultural arm.
At the same time, says Sayed, Arabs are rallying behind Hosny — who would be the first Arab to hold the position — and they will be angry if he loses.
"Farouk Hosny now is seen as the candidate of the Arabs and the Muslim world, so I guess this would leave a sense of bitterness in Arab and Muslim countries," Sayed says.
After UNESCO's Executive Board votes, the U.N. group's general conference is expected to ratify the new director-general next month.