Egypt's UNESCO candidate not qualified, says rights lawyer

CAIRO — A top Egyptian rights lawyer said on Sunday the country's candidate for UNESCO's top job was not qualified for the post because of her silence and "sometimes complicity" in some of the government's repressive policies.

Gamal Eid, head of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, told The Associated Press he had sought in vain to enlist Moushira Khattab's help after state 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, according to Eid, Khattab told him the courts would have the final say on the matter, a stance later repeated by general-turned-President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Eid said there was no court case since he chose not to sue the government over the closures. Asked why, he said: "I am a lawyer and I know that no judiciary can reverse the actions of the State Security agency."

Eid's comments came one day after six Egyptian rights groups urged UNESCO to reject Khattab's candidacy, alleging she was party to state attacks on the values for which the Paris-based U.N. agency stands.

Such criticism comes at a critical time as voting for the post was due to begin Monday in Paris. Khattab is believed to be among the front-runners.

Khattab did not respond to messages by The Associated Press seeking comment, but Mohammed al-Orabi, a former Egyptian foreign minister and her chief campaigner, said she must not be blamed for the closures of the libraries since she is no longer part of the government. "She supports human rights, freedom of speech, and the empowerment of women," he said.

Khattab is running to replace Irina Bokova of Bulgaria, UNESCO's current director. She is the second Egyptian candidate to seek UNESCO's top post since 2009 when former culture minister Farouk Hosni ran.

A career U.S.-educated diplomat, Khattab's biggest achievement was campaigning in the 1990s for women's rights as a top aide to the country's first lady at the time, Suzanne Mubarak. She 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.

She also served as family and housing minister under President Hosni Mubarak, ousted in a 2011 popular uprising.

Said al-Lawindi, a political analyst at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said Khattab was not of the caliber suited for the top UNESCO job, suggesting that Egypt had many internationally-known figures that should have been fielded in her place. "If you step outside Cairo and ask anyone whether they know her, no one would," he said.

The shutdown of Eid's libraries added to Khattab's "poor performance," he said.

Eid began setting up his six public libraries in May 2012, months after he won the Roland Berger Foundation Human Dignity Award in 2011. The first library was in Cairo's impoverished slum of Dar al-Salam.

Thanks to donations of thousands of books, he set up more libraries, calling them "al-Karama," Arabic for dignity.

The first raid on the libraries took place on Dec. 1 when security agents and police simultaneously stormed three of them. Fearing similar raids, Eid later closed the other three libraries.

At the time, Khattab posted a pledge on her Twitter account to do her best to reopen the libraries.

In January, Khattab visited the library in Dar al-Salam and commended Eid for the project, but later said that the fate of the libraries were in the hands of the judiciary.

"She didn't open her mouth or take a position," Eid said, "it wasn't only silence; it was also complicity."

The raids on the libraries were part of some of the harshest security measures Egypt has seen in decades, with thousands of Islamists jailed along with rights advocates. Independent news portals were blocked and critical voices in the media silenced.

The crackdown began after the 2013 ouster by the military, then led by el-Sissi, of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

"This is a police state by definition," Eid said. "They want the UNESCO post to whitewash their dark image."

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