Egypt Jewish leader backs controversial local candidate to head UNESCO

Magda Harroun praises Moushira Khattab’s commitment ‘to protect Egypt’s Jewish heritage,’ as cultural arm votes to replace leader who had chided states over anti-Israel bias

Illustrative: The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
Illustrative: The president of the Egyptian Jewish Community, Magda Shehata Haroun, talks during an interview with AFP at the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue in Cairo, also known as Temple Ismailia or Adly Synagogue in downtown Cairo on October 3, 2016. (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

The head of Egypt’s minuscule Jewish community has voiced support for the country’s UNESCO candidate, as the cultural body prepared to vote for a new leader Monday amid intense Israeli lobbying to thwart perceived anti-Israel bias.

A statement from Egypt Jewish community head Magda Haroun said that Moushira Khattab has shown an impressive and “genuine commitment to our cause to protect Egypt’s Jewish heritage.”

Haroun said Khattab, who has been criticized by Egyptian human rights activists,  is a “courageous woman who has the talent of successfully taking on challenging causes.”

Egypt’s Jewish community is made up of six Jews, including Haroun.

A US-educated longtime diplomat, Khattab is believed to be among the front-runners for the UNESCO top post, to replace Irina Bukova. Voting is due to start on Monday in Paris.

Egyptian candidate to head UNESCO, Moushira Khattab (CC BY Mahmoud Khattab, Wikimedia Commons)

In expressing her support for Khattab, Haroun cited a 1990s campaign for women’s rights when Khattab served as a top aide to the country’s first lady at the time, Suzanne Mubarak.

Khattab has also served as chairwoman of the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood and was one of the main architects of legislation prohibiting the marriage of underage girls and female genital circumcision.

Khattab’s candidacy has been opposed by a number of Egyptian human rights groups, with a top Egyptian rights lawyer saying the country’s candidate for UNESCO’s top job is not qualified for the post because of her silence and “sometimes complicity” in the government’s repressive policies.

Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said on Sunday that he had sought in vain to enlist Khattab’s help after security agents stormed three of six libraries he set up in poor neighborhoods with prize money from a rights award he won.

After promising to help, Khattab told him the courts would have the final say on the matter, a stance later repeated by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Eid said there was no court case on the closures.

A number of other Egyptian rights groups have also been critical of Khattab’s candidacy, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Nazra for Feminist Studies. They allege that she is complicit in state attacks on the values for which the UN agency stands.

Bukova is leaving her role as head of the agency after a tenure marred by funding troubles and tension over its inclusion of the Palestinians as members.

Irina Bokova speaks with reporters in New York on April 12, 2016. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

Besides Khattab, other leading candidates include Qian Tang of China and Qatar’s former Culture Minister Hamad bin Abdulaziz Al-Kawari.

Intense diplomatic wrangling has marked the race among seven candidates to become the next director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Arab countries have long wanted to lead the organization, though divisions over Palestinian membership have complicated their push.

UNESCO infuriated Israel and its staunch ally the United States by granting full membership to Palestine in 2011.

Both countries suspended their funding to the agency — best known for its prestigious World Heritage List — over the move.

Most recently, the Paris-based body delighted Palestinians when it declared the Old City of Hebron in the West Bank an endangered World Heritage site. It has also passed several resolutions ignoring Jewish ties to Jerusalem, drawing Israeli officials’ fury.

Israeli officials have stepped up lobbying at the world body in recent years, charging it with passing one-sided resolutions that obsessively target Israel. Bukova had also criticized anti-resolutions proposed by Arab states.

“Too often we see the rise of exclusive discourses, trying to distort and cut our heritage in pieces, in endless disputes about what belongs to who, to this culture or another, about whose heritage is the greatest, the oldest, the holiest,” Bukova said during a ceremony with Israeli UNESCO envoy Carmel Shama-Hacohen last week.

On Saturday, Shama-Hacohen said UNESCO was likely to postpone any anti-Israel resolutions at its major summit this week, in what would amount to a significant diplomatic victory for Jerusalem, the Israeli envoy said Saturday.

As they have done a number of times annually in past years, several Arab nations in UNESCO drafted two resolutions condemning Israel for various actions in Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and elsewhere.

But as a result of intense Israeli and American lobbying, no such texts will be voted on during UNESCO’s 202nd Executive Board meeting, which starts Monday in Paris.

Instead, two resolutions pushing off the aforementioned proposals for six months are expected to be passed unanimously.

“The resolutions are expected to pass unanimously — unless a country breaks its commitment in the last moment,” Shama-Hacohen told The Times of Israel on Saturday.

Israel’s ambassador to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, with cultural agency’s director-general Irina Bokova, September 26, 2017 (Erez Lichtfeld)

While the anti-Israel resolutions will only be delayed, Israel views the development as a “significant step toward the total elimination” of such proposals, he said.

“Time will tell if this a tactical change or a change of approach and significant progress toward clearing the organization of incitement and politicization against us,” Shama-Hacohen said.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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