Egypt and Qatar in diplomatic tiff over Gulf support for UNESCO candidates
Courtesy: MTCIC

The disappointment and anger was palpable in the office of Moushira Khattab, Egypt’s candidate for position of director general of UNESCO, as results from the first day of voting rolled in on Monday, with Khattab in an unexpected third place.

According to an Egyptian diplomatic source, who spoke to Mada Masr from Paris on condition of anonymity, Khattab’s team was surprised when Qatari candidate Hamad Bin Abdul Aziz al-Kawary received 19 votes in the first round instead of an anticipated 10-14. The French candidate Audrey Azoulay garnered 13 votes as widely predicted.

A third round of voting took place on Wednesday, with the French and Qatari candidates neck and neck with 18 votes each, followed by Khattab, still in third place with 13 votes. China’s Qian Tang had five votes, while Lebanese candidate Vera al-Khouly trailed behind with only three.

The voting takes place over four rounds, and if no one candidate obtains the necessary number of votes, a final round will be held on Friday.

“We know that Qatar spends very generously to secure as many votes as possible. However, we never expected they would be able to garner the most votes, with a considerable margin over the French candidate who seemed more likely to win,” the diplomatic source says.  

The vote to replace outgoing Director General Irina Bokova is conducted by the 58 members of the organization’s executive board. To secure the director position, a candidate must receive at least 30 votes in one of the initial rounds of voting. If no one candidate secures the necessary total, the two candidates who receive the highest number of votes in the fourth round will proceed to a final vote. The results are then presented to the remaining 195 member states in the organization for their approval.

An Egyptian diplomat based in Cairo, also speaking on condition of anonymity, affirmed that official state support for Khattab’s UNESCO bid was motivated by a desire to add a UN post to a list of the regime’s assumed diplomatic accomplishments. The progress of the Qatari candidate also adds further insult to injury given the ongoing diplomatic spat between the two nations.

Egypt presented its acquisition of a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council as a victory in foreign relations, so Khattab being appointed director general of UNESCO would almost certainly be referred to as a significant diplomatic triumph,” the diplomat adds.

The current rift between Egypt and Qatar follows a period of previously better relations between the two countries, the diplomat says, recalling a decision by Qatar to refrain from fielding a candidate for secretary general of the Arab League in 2011 in favor of Egyptian candidate Nabil al-Araby, the first post-revolution Foreign Minister, who assumed the position.

Tension between the two countries worsened after the overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, as a result of Qatar’s strong ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has since faced political and criminal accusations of involvement in terrorist attacks in Egypt.

The disappointment in the low number of votes for Khattab was visible on the face of Egyptian Foreign Affairs Minister Sameh Shoukry, who arrived in Paris last week to personally oversee her campaign, according to the diplomatic source in France.

Shoukry held two meetings after the results of the first day of voting were revealed, one with Khattab and the Egyptian Ambassador in Paris, Ehab Badawy, and the second with the Egyptian UNESCO delegation, the embassy’s representatives in Paris and Khattab’s technical support team. The conclusion drawn from these meetings is that Khattab did not manage to secure the votes promised from African countries days before the vote as part of the African Summit’s decision to support her candidacy.

Qatar made use of the closed vote to persuade African nations to switch their allegiance, the diplomat suggests, adding that support from Gulf nations in this election was “not generous.”

Shoukry and Badawy had engaged in talks before the vote with Gulf nations in an attempt to dissuade them from supporting the Qatari candidate, the source explains, adding that such a move would never be able to gain Emirati and Saudi funding to rival that of Qatar.

A diplomatic official in Cairo told Mada Masr hours before the start of the vote that Qatar might resort to an agreement with France to transfers voter allegiance if there was a sense that a Gulf coalition was trying to foil its candidate.

The Egyptian delegation is attempting to reach an agreement with the Lebanese and Chinese candidates to withdraw in support of Khattab, the diplomat in France says, adding that these discussions have not amounted to anything thus far.

Both diplomats in Cairo and in Paris agree that if either the Lebanese or the Chinese candidates withdraw, their votes will not necessarily go to the Egyptian candidate, unless there is swift financial intervention from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

After the first day of voting, Qatar sought to convince countries that voted for Azerbaijan and Vietnam (which each received two votes) to switch their votes to the Qatari candidate in the second round, the diplomat in Paris says, explaining that such negotiations are always dependent on a game that involves ceding influence over regional positions and offering financial rewards.

Although Khattab, known for her campaigning against child marriage and female circumcision, is the Egyptian government’s candidate of choice for the position, she has been widely criticized by Egyptian rights groups, who have highlighted her silence over state policies they say restrict key rights and freedoms. Khattab was family and population minister under deposed President Hosni Mubarak and she chaired Egypt’s National Council for Childhood and Motherhood.

In 2009, Egypt’s Culture Minister Farouk Hosny ran for the post of director general of UNESCO,  however he lost to the current director general, despite direct support from Mubarak.

Asmahan Soliman 

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