July 8, 2009
The elections for UNESCO's secretary-general look set to provide an exemplary lesson in why the Arabs always mess up when it comes to fielding candidates for international posts, writes Hassan Nafaa*
In 1999, just as now, UNESCO was in the middle of choosing a new director- general. After nominations closed the official list of candidates was published. It included two Arabs, Ghazi Al-Qusaibi, who was nominated by his own government (Saudi Arabia), and Ismail Serageddin, nominated not by his own government (Egypt), but by another African state (Benin if my memory serves me correctly). Since the Arab vote, and the vote of their friends, was divided, both Arab candidates lost and a third -- Ko´chiro Matsuura from Japan -- was elected. Today, as the end of Matsuura's second term approaches, we may be on the verge of a repeat performance of the 1999 scenario.
On 31 May nominations closed, after which the chairman of the UNESCO's executive board published the official list of candidates. There are nine, and as in 1999, two are Arab: Egypt's current Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, nominated by Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait and Libya, and Mohamed Bedjaoui from Algeria, nominated by Cambodia. Although it is too early to predict the results of this contest it is easy to envision both candidates sticking it out to the end, when they will both lose. If this tells us anything it is that Arab governments do not learn from past mistakes.
No one can dispute how important it is that an Arab head UNESCO at such a delicate juncture in the evolution of the international order. To me it makes little difference whether the person elected is Egyptian, Algerian, Saudi Arabian or any other Arab nationality. What is important is that he be Arab in identity and consciousness, open to all world cultures, and endowed with the skills and character needed to help generate an international climate conducive to dialogue between cultures, free of all manifestations of heavy-handedness, arrogance and disdain. Sadly, it seems that this simple hope will remain out of reach, not because it is difficult to obtain but because Arab rulers have yet to learn the art of conflict management, which is why they always lose their battles in the international arena. They are no longer capable of drawing the line between the areas of inter-Arab rivalry, often determined by legitimate national aims, and areas that demand unity if the Arabs are ever to assume their rightful place in the international order.
I opposed the nomination of Hosni long before the official announcement of the candidates for UNESCO director- general. In an article appearing in Al-Masry Al-Yom on 29 June 2008 I explained why. Beneath the headline, "Advice that Farouk Hosni did not solicit and will not appreciate," I expressed surprise that Egypt had not put forward Ismail Serageddin, who the government did not officially support in 1999, since when he has demonstrated his superb managerial and intellectual skills in the administration of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. I did, however, assume that there was still sufficient time for consultations between the officials concerned and entertained the hope that Arab countries would eventually agree on a candidate they could all champion.
About a month after I wrote that article, while attending the Asilah Cultural Festival in Morocco, I met professor Aziza Bannani, the Moroccan ambassador to UNESCO. She, too, had just been nominated for the director-generalship. In the course of our conversation I asked her what she thought prevented Arab countries from consulting before announcing their candidates for international positions so there could at least be one candidate they could all support. Her response was rather enigmatic: "I was nominated by royal decree and whether this nomination stands or is withdrawn is also contingent upon the royal will." When the king of Morocco did eventually withdraw the nomination of his ambassador to UNESCO I imagined that this decision had followed inter-Arab talks that would eventually lead to a single Arab candidate. That conclusion was hasty.
I have no information on what prompted Bedjaoui to field himself for the post without consulting even his own government in advance, and instead turning to a non-Arab and non-African country to nominate him. For the many in the Arab world, addicts of conspiracy theorising, it is difficult to believe that a person of the status of Bedjaoui, who is a close friend of President Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, could have embarked on such a step without having discussed it with his government in advance. Naturally, their suspicions fall on the personal relations between Arab leaders, leading some to predict heightened tensions in the perpetually strained official inter-Arab relations. In all events, the question now is the extent to which Bedjaoui's nomination will affect the prospects of Hosni.
I am not acquainted with Bedjaoui. However, I have followed his long and growing list of important academic contributions and I regard him as one of my mentors. But his international repute stems not so much from his precocious scholastic eminence as it does from his distinguished presence in various international fields. He is a prominent jurist and has served as a judge on the International Court of Justice, so he hardly needs a letter of recommendation from me or anyone else to testify to his credentials. But the most pressing question now is not professional but political. Bedjaoui would be the first to tell you that UNESCO is a governmental organisation. It is the member states on the executive board that elect the director- general, after which their choice must be ratified in a plenary assembly. The way states vote is determined by purely political considerations. It has nothing to do with the qualifications of the individual candidates. Undoubtedly, too, Bedjaoui recalls what happened in 1999. Matsuura did not attain his current position by virtue of his outstanding contributions to the sciences, arts and literature. He was a personal friend of the Japanese prime minister. And if Japan had not put all its weight and resources behind its candidate, who knows far more about the art of diplomacy than about the world of arts, he would not have been able to win this prestigious post.
From this perspective, the prospects of the candidate from Algeria are weaker than those of Hosni. Bedjaoui was not officially nominated by his own government, and even if it does support him behind the scenes such support may not only be ineffective but could be counterproductive since the state that did officially nominate him, Cambodia, is a member of neither the Arab nor African bloc whose votes any Arab candidate must depend on. Hosni, on the other hand, not only has the official support of the Egyptian government but also the personal support of President Hosni Mubarak. Indeed, it has been reported that Mubarak personally asked Netanyahu to halt the Israeli government's campaign against Hosni on account of the minister's position on normalisation and his statements regarding the burning of Israeli books. In addition, the UNESCO post was the major focus of a recent meeting between Mubarak, Muammar Gaddafi and Bouteflika. According to rumours in the press, Mubarak was furious at the Algerian president for allowing an Algerian candidate to enter into the running. Gaddafi stepped in to alleviate the tensions, flying off to Algeria to pick up Bouteflika and escort him to Cairo for the meeting with Mubarak.
It is hard for any Arab not to feel depressed when molehills are turned into mountains that absorb all the energies of Arab leaders at a time when their countries and peoples are facing such enormous regional and international challenges. It is sad when not even Arab cultural elites can point to a more constructive and nobler way for their leaders to handle differences. The Arab world is the only regional block that has failed to produce an intellectual, literary or scientific figure to head UNESCO, in spite of the fact that the region is the cradle of the world's most important civilisations, from the Pharaonic and Babylonian to the Assyrian, Phoenician and Islamic. There have been director-generals from Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia but none from the Arab world, and when the opportunity to elect an Arab director- general does present itself, the Arabs do their best to squander it.
I do not believe that the 80 year old Bedjaoui stands a real chance to win. If he did, I would be the first to support his candidacy until the end of the campaign. I should also stress that I do not believe that Bedjaoui would be so petty as to field himself merely to ruin the chances of his Egyptian colleague, however great or small those chances. In spite of my personal reservations regarding Hosni, who has made some unjustifiable mistakes, I still want to see an Arab as the next UNESCO director-general. My hope is that Bedjaoui withdraws from this contest. He may be the more competent and qualified, but such considerations are the last things that count in this consummately political game.
The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
This article was written before the official withdrawal of Bedjaoui from the electoral race