(photo credit: Charles Platiau / Reuters)
Hamad bin Abdulaziz al-Kawari of Qatar and Audrey Azoulay of France are the leading candidates to head UNESCO as a result of Monday’s preliminary vote in Paris.
UNESCO’s 58-member Executive Board cast secret ballots for seven candidates to replace the organization’s director-general Irina Bokova, whose eight-year tenure expires at the end of December.
After the first round of voting, Kawari received 19 votes, followed by Azoulay, who is Jewish, with 13.
Egyptian human rights advocate Moushira Khattab garnered 11 votes.
The votes for the other four candidates are as follows: six for Vera el-Khoury Lacoeuilhe of Lebanon, five for Qian Tang of China and two for Polad Bulbuloglu of Azerbaijan and Pham Sanh Chau of Vietnam. Diplomatic sources told The Jerusalem Post that these last two candidates will likely withdraw from the race.
The news was a mixed bag for Israel, which has been nervous about Kawari’s candidacy, believing him to be antisemitic.
Diplomatic sources told the Post the preliminary vote is not necessarily significant, as backroom deals can be made, even in the coming hours, for candidates to quit the race ahead of Tuesday’s second round of voting.
Israel’s Ambassador to UNESCO Carmel Shama-Hacohen agreed, saying “anything can happen” in the coming week.
“Unfortunately, this is not good news for the organization and certainly not for Israel.
It must be remembered, however, that the current director-general [Bokova] was chosen after receiving only seven votes in the first round.”
Qatar diplomats said they were satisfied by the results, appearing confident that Kawari would eventually land the position.
Secret ballot votes will be held every day this week, until such time as a candidate can garner the majority support of 30 executive board members.
Kawari is a palace adviser and was his country’s culture minister from 2008 to 2016. He has also served as the ambassador to France, the United States, UNESCO and the UN.
He has the official support of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and apparently also the unofficial support of several North African representatives on UNESCO’s Executive Board.
But Shimon Samuels, who is the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director for international relations, has warned that Kawari is antisemitic.
He charged that while Kawari was culture minister, his country had a stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair with texts that “fomented conspiracy theories against Jews.”
Azoulay, who was a latecomer to the race, has been considered an underdog because she is a European candidate at a time when the organization is under pressure to choose its first-ever Arab or African leader. All past director-generals have come from Europe, North America or Asia.
To show that she is not the normative European candidate, Azoulay has focused on her Moroccan heritage.
She is the daughter of André Azoulay, who is a special adviser to Moroccan King Mohammed VI.
The French diplomat has also spoken repeatedly of her attachment to North African culture and heritage. Azoulay served as culture minister under former president François Hollande.
He submitted her candidacy to UNESCO when he was a lame duck at the end of his term.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s entourage has not been enthusiastic about her candidacy.
Still, Macron took it upon himself personally to advance it.
Israeli diplomats told the Post that they have preferred not to openly campaign for her so they would not damage her chances.
Khattab of Egypt placed third after a major diplomatic push over the past few months to garner international support for her candidacy, which played both the African and the Arab card.
The new director-general will be confirmed at the agency’s general conference in November.
Bokova has served the maximum two four-year terms and cannot be reelected.