Book-burning threat costs Egypt Unesco leadership

The suspense-laden, drawn-out race to lead the UN agency for culture and education ended yesterday with a career diplomat from Bulgaria beating an Egyptian candidate whose one-time threat to burn Israeli books had galvanised opposition.

In a fifth round of secret balloting, Bulgaria's ambassador to France, Irina Bokova, defeated Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosny for the leadership of Unesco, by 31 votes to 27. Ms Bokova, 57, will become Unesco's first woman director general and the first from the former Soviet bloc. The race was tight and closely watched, with a flurry of secretive diplomatic efforts between each round, allegations of fraud and an uproar over Mr Hosny's candidacy. Critics raised Egypt's contentious record of cultural censorship and accused him of being anti-Israel.

The two candidates had tied on Monday night and if last night's vote had also been a draw, officials were prepared to pick a name from the hat.

Ms Bokova immediately sought to restore unity after the divisive race, speaking of her "respect and friendship" for her rival and praising his campaign ideas. "I never believed in the idea of a clash of civilisations," she said. "UNESCO is about tolerance."