While the election of the Director-General of UNESCO has largely remained uncovered in world news, the fact remains that this is a highly important world event. The Director-General (DG) of UNESCO is the Organization’s Chief Administrative Officer.
The main objective of UNESCO is to contribute to peace and security in the world by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science, culture and communication in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law, and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms. In simple terms, UNESCO is one of the most committed champions of both freedom of speech and expression. At least that is what they state in their mandate.
In the wake of recent atrocities such as terrorist attacks, democratic election fraud, censorship, civil wars and refugee crises, protecting both the freedom of speech and expression are more important now than ever. Just yesterday, via IFEX (the International Freedom of Expression Exchange), over 170 non-governmental organizations called on the UNESCO Executive Board to consider commitment to freedom of expression in nominating the new DG.
Perhaps a reason for their urgent imploration is due to the fact that several of the DG candidates up for nomination are emerging from nations, backed from regimes, that are the very antithesis of freedom of speech and expression.
Most concerning is Egypt's nomination candidate, Moushira Khattab. Khattab is a former politician and diplomat, she held positions such as the Minister of Family & Population for Egypt and served as ambassador to South Africa.What’s worrying is that Khattab has been nominated by Egypt’s ruthless el-Sisi regime.
Since the el-Sisi regime took power, it seems as things are worse than ever, with Egypt rapidly devolving into a totalitarian police (or military) state.
Here are some of the highlights from the past nine months alone:
Since May 24, 114 websites have been blocked including Huffington Post, Al Jazeera and Medium. Even voice calls made over whatsapp, facetime and skype are being blocked. Hundreds have disappeared and been tortured during the brutal repression since the government took action on dissenters. Despite calls from NGOs and activists such as Amnesty International, the government has refused to curb the brutality. More journalists are in prison than ever previously recorded. Self-censorship is rife and the Egyptian media has become a mouthpiece of the state. Discriminated Nubian’s have faced more obstacles to returning to their homeland as the land they were promised has been reclassified for military or business use. Police are imprisoning homosexuals for attempting to use apps such as Grindr. The police are enacting ancient laws combined with new technology to make this easier.
Numerous Middle-East experts reported to the US Senate that its relationship with Egypt needs to be reconsidered. President el-Sisi signed a law that heavily restricts the operations of more than 47,000 NGOs. Amid numerous bombings and attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians, the government has failed to act nor made any attempt to bring the attackers to justice. As education standards drop and unemployment rises, numbers of children working on the streets of Cairo has soared.
The general consensus is that the state of the country has hit an all-time low (in recent memory). International publications have declared Egypt’s revolution as a failure and even gone so far to say that the country’s extreme repression is providing the perfect breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists.
Despite this lack of progress, it’s perhaps quite surprising that Egypt putting forth a candidate for the head of UNESCO, has largely gone uncovered by the international press.
According to UNESCO, it’s aim is “to contribute to the building of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication and information”.
From the points made above, it’s clear that Egypt and its government has been failing on all fronts. Whether it’s clamping down on free speech, neglecting education, torturing prisoners, jailing homosexuals or marginalizing ethnic groups, Egypt is hardly a suitable nation to offer up a leader.
The Director-General of UNESCO is perhaps the second most prestigious diplomatic post in the world. Second only to the Secretary-General of the UN itself.
UNESCO wields considerable influence worldwide and works with governments and NGOs to achieve its goals. With Egypt’s track record of shutting down and raiding NGOs, it doesn’t bode well for future success.
Regardless of Khattab’s credentials and personal beliefs, the risk of her becoming a mouthpiece for the Egyptian dictator, el-Sisi is unacceptable.
It's widely known that Egypt is currently in a financial crisis and is itself, a major recipient of UNESCO funds.
Egypt has spent millions on a campaign for UNESCO and yet its own country is in a crisis. Perhaps if Egypt really believed in UNESCO's work, it could invest in education, gender equality and freedom of press at home. Working with their own citizens first would show their commitment to these noble activities before attempting to lead an organization with countries such as Sweden, Norway, and France.
Egypt has attempted to run for UNESCO on 4 previous occasions, most recently with Farak Hosny in 2009. A well liked candidate, Hosny was unable to stir support from the African nations and with a strong lobby by the US and Israel failed to make the votes. Hosny lost out to the incumbent Director-General, Irina Bokova.
In this election, like the others, Egypt has attempted to position itself as the defacto ‘African’ candidate. This has been heavily criticized and declared as a convenience by several nations who have decided to back other candidates.
The “AFRICAN” candidate
According to the UNESCO executive board electoral group Egypt is a member of the Arab group yet Egypt is now stating it is a member of the African group and is the Africa candidate. Should Egypt win the election for the post of UNESCO director general then by the concept of geographical rotation Africa will now need to wait another 25+years for another shot at being the Director General of UNESCO.
NGO’s have been critical of the candidature of Khattab and leading organizations such a Paris based Reporters Without Borders (RWB), or Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), an international non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press. The organization, with a head office in Paris, France, has consultant status at the United Nations. There report on Egypt can be seen here.
The UNESCO election will ask the 58 members of the executive board to select a leader to move UNESCO from it’s political and financial crisis. Many see that this election as the “last chance” for UNESCO.
The candidate from Lebanon has been vocal about supporting the freedom of press and to preserve the integrity of UNESCO. A well known UNESCO insider seems to be a favoured candidate ahead of Egypt.
Candidates from France and Qatar seem to the main contenders for the post based on initial investigations from inside UNESCO, but this does not seem to stop Egypt from using every trick in the book in an attempt to gain this highly important post.