Anti-Israel Egyptian Running for U.N. Agency Head

An Egyptian culture minister who once threatened to burn Israeli books will face off against a career diplomat from Bulgaria in the race to lead the U.N.'s agency for learning and culture.

In an election full of suspense, secrecy and surprise maneuvers, two candidates for UNESCO's top job tied in a fourth round of voting Monday, the Paris-based organization said.

Irina Bokova, Bulgarian ambassador to France, and Farouk Hosni, a veteran Egyptian government minister dogged by allegations that he is anti-Israel, both had 29 votes in secret balloting. If she wins, she would be UNESCO's first woman director-general; he would be the first from the Arab world.

The fifth and final vote is Tuesday. If the candidates are still tied then, the winner will be picked in a draw, UNESCO said.

The outcry against Hosni has focused on his book-burning threat last year. Speaking before Egyptian lawmakers and attempting to defend himself against charges of being soft on Israel, he had vowed to burn any Israeli books in Egypt's famed Library of Alexandria.

Hosni apologized for the remark during his candidacy, saying it was spontaneous and a manifestation of his anger at Palestinian suffering.

But some Jewish activists viewed his amends as cynical and accused him of making many anti-Semitic comments during his career. Hosni, a painter who has been Egypt's culture minister for more than two decades, "would destroy UNESCO for years to come," the Simon Wiesenthal Center said.

Critics say Hosni is unfit to be the U.N.'s guardian of culture because he censored some books and movies and stifled media freedoms. Supporters, meanwhile, say he is experienced and could help UNESCO bridge gaps between the West and Islam.

While Hosni was cited as a favorite for months before the election, Bokova gained ground at the last minute as other candidates dropped out, partly amid attempts to consolidate support for a strong challenger for Hosni.

Bokova joined her Foreign Ministry's U.N. and disarmament department in 1976, becoming the country's foreign minister for a brief period in 1996-1997. She has witnessed Bulgaria's transformation from Eastern Bloc nation to European Union member.

Voting began Thursday with nine candidates. European Union External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner was among those who dropped out. Ecuadorean politician and diplomat Ivonne Baki bowed out just half an hour before Tuesday's voting.

The winner will succeed Koichiro Matsuura of Japan, who was elected in 1999 and worked to cut down on corruption and cronyism at the organization. Matsuura also helped persuade the United States to return to UNESCO. It had dropped out in 1984, calling UNESCO corrupt and anti-Western.