- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

PARIS | A career diplomat from Bulgaria won a suspenseful and drawn-out race to lead the U.N. agency for culture and education Tuesday, beating out an Egyptian candidate whose one-time threat to burn Israeli books had galvanized opposition.

In a fifth round of secret balloting Tuesday, Bulgaria’s ambassador to France, Irina Bokova, defeated Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny for the leadership of UNESCO. The vote was 31 to 27, the organization’s media office said.

Mrs. Bokova, 57, will become the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s first female director general and the first from the former Soviet bloc. She was her country’s foreign minister for a brief period in 1996-1997, and also helped negotiate Bulgaria’s entry into the European Union and NATO. Her four-year term will begin Nov. 15.

The race was tight and closely watched, with a flurry of secretive diplomatic efforts between each round, allegations of fraud and an uproar over Mr. Hosny’s candidacy. Critics raised Egypt’s contentious record of cultural censorship and accused Mr. Hosny of being anti-Israel.

Mrs. Bokova and Mr. Hosny tied on Monday night - and if Tuesday’s vote had also been a draw, officials were prepared to pick a name at random from a bag.

The winner immediately sought to restore unity after the divisive race, speaking of her “respect and friendship” for Mr. Hosny and praising his campaign ideas. For months, Mr. Hosny had been considered the favorite.

“I never believed in the idea of a clash of civilizations,” Mrs. Bokova said, adding that her leadership of UNESCO would be geared to mutual understanding and cultural dialogue.

“UNESCO is about tolerance,” she said.

Suspicions of fraud rose as the unexpectedly intense race unfolded at the agency’s Paris headquarters.

A UNESCO delegate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said at least one person was ejected from the agency’s building by UNESCO security staff for trying to bribe delegates on Monday. UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams said the reports had been investigated and found to be groundless.

The outcry against Mr. Hosny focused on his threat in the Egyptian parliament last year to personally burn any Israeli book he found in Egypt’s famed Library of Alexandria. Mr. Hosny, a painter who has been Egypt’s culture minister for more than two decades, made the comment in an attempt to defend himself against charges by Egyptian lawmakers of being soft on Israel.

He later apologized for the remark, saying it was spontaneous and a manifestation of his anger at Palestinian suffering. But critics kept up the pressure, accusing him of several anti-Semitic comments over the years.

Mrs. Bokova, who will replace Koichiro Matsuura of Japan at the UNESCO post, speaks fluent English, Russian, Spanish and French. Her father was a Communist Party official who was editor-in-chief of the party newspaper.

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