CAIRO — Cairo has been rounding up support for Moushira Khattab, its preferred candidate for the post of director-general for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Another eight candidates will be competing against Khattab in the election scheduled for Oct. 9, including Hamad al-Kawari, former Qatari minister of information and culture; Audrey Azoulay, French minister for culture and communication; and Qian Tang of China, UNESCO's assistant director-general for education. Khattab and Kawari's candidacies have launched another diplomatic confrontation between Qatar and the Arab countries boycotting it since June 5.
In July, the boycotting countries — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — announced their support for Khattab, who has also gained the backing of the bloc of 13 African countries on UNESCO's Executive Board, who announced their support in a resolution at a summit in Addis Ababa.
The boycotting Gulf state's support of Khattab's candidacy apparently represents a retraction of their earlier decision to support Kawari. Last year, Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmed Ben Helli had said that the Gulf states would support Kawari's nomination, viewing him as a representative of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The Gulf countries boycotting Qatar have no seats on UNESCO's 58-member Executive Board and are therefore not eligible to vote. On July 31, Khattab told the press that high-level circles in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain had confirmed that they would promote her candidacy to countries on the board. She viewed their support as an expression of those countries’ growing belief in Egypt’s chances of success.
Observers told Al-Monitor that the race has become more competitive with Azoulay running — UNESCO's headquarters are in France — not to mention the candidacies of Vera el Khoury Lacoeuilhe of Lebanon and Saleh al-Hasnawi of Iraq, who will be competing with Khattab and Kawari for the votes of the Arab bloc, which consists of Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar and Sudan.
Zahi Hawass, former Egyptian antiquities minister, offered his assessment of the race, telling Al-Monitor, “The competition is limited to the Egyptian, French and Chinese candidates, but it remains fierce given their importance on the international arena.” He went on to say that he believes Khattab is most likely to win and that Kawari has no chance.
Said al-Lawandi, an international relations expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Countries boycotting [Qatar] will assume a significant role in promoting the Egyptian candidacy among member states of the UNESCO Executive Council to spite Qatar.” He noted, “Winning the vote is a priority for Doha, which has in its possession a lot of money to be pumped into Hamad al-Kawari’s campaign.”
Joseph Hammond of the American Media Institute recently wrote, “Qatar is unlikely to win the support of Senegal, which severed ties with Qatar at one point over the crisis. It also will not be able to draw on Chad, which downgraded its ties with Doha as well.” He further noted, “Qatar’s al-Kawari, though, has used the country’s wealth to criss-cross the globe to gather support.”
Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE suspended diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar in June after accusing it of supporting terrorist groups and Iran. Kuwait was unsuccessful in its efforts at mediating the crisis.
Abdullah al-Sanawi, an Egyptian journalist for Ash-Shorouk, told Al-Monitor, “The war among Arabs was declared in this year’s voting, and the door is open to all possibilities.” He added, “The Qatari candidate has a big chance, influence and financial resources, in addition to the fact that his country is standing behind him. He, however, will not obtain the Arab support that Khattab has.”
Sanawi further stated, “Although the African bloc affirmed that its vote will go to the Egyptian candidate, one cannot be sure that the African votes will necessarily be in her favor given that some of the states may alter their stance a few days before the voting. I hope that Khattab made sure that the votes will actually go for her, to avoid a repeat Egyptian defeat in this international forum. Khattab has a chance of winning this vote. This chance, however, will decrease with the presence of a candidate from France, where UNESCO headquarters are, and the other three Arab candidates.”
The previous Egyptian defeats Sanawi referred to occurred 10 years apart. In 1999, the Egyptian candidate for director-general, Ismail Serageldin, founding director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, lost to Koichiro Matsuura of Japan. In 2009, Farouk Hosny, former culture minister, lost to the current director-general, Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, after being accused of anti-Semitism.
Mustafa al-Fukhi, director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, said in a Sept. 14 interview on MBC Masr that Kawari has no chance of winning, suggesting that some countries will not vote for him out of fear of the repercussions of the ongoing crisis.