In a fifth round of secret balloting Tuesday, Bulgaria's ambassador to France, Irina Bokova, defeated Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni for the leadership of UNESCO. The vote was 31 to 27, the organization's media office said.
Bokova, 57, will become UNESCO's first woman director general and the first from the former Soviet bloc. She was her country's foreign minister for a brief period in 1996-1997, and also helped negotiate Bulgaria's entry into the European Union and NATO. Her four-year term will begin November 15.
The race was tight and closely watched, with a flurry of secretive diplomatic efforts between each round, allegations of fraud and an uproar over Hosni's candidacy. Critics raised Egypt's contentious record of cultural censorship and accused him of being anti-Israel.
Bokova and Hosni tied on Monday night – and if Tuesday's vote had also been a draw, officials were prepared to pick a name at random from a bag.
The winner immediately sought to restore unity after the divisive race, speaking of her "respect and friendship" for Hosni and praising his campaign ideas. For months, Hosni had been considered the favorite.
"I never believed in the idea of a clash of civilizations," Bokova said, adding that her leadership of UNESCO would be geared at mutual understanding and cultural dialogue.
"UNESCO is about tolerance," she said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy congratulated Bokova following her election, saying "Israel is convinced its fertile cooperation with UNESCO will continue and will even be extended and deepened."
Suspicions of fraud rose as the unexpectedly intense race unfolded at the agency's Paris headquarters.
A UNESCO delegate told The Associated Press that at least one person was ejected from the agency's building by UNESCO security staff for trying to bribe delegates on Monday. The official said several UNESCO member states had complained to the director general about the bribery attempts.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the eviction had been reported by senior members of UNESCO's administration.
Elizabeth Longworth, executive director of the office of UNESCO's director general, refused to discuss the issue on the telephone, saying she was too busy.
A UNESCO spokeswoman denied there was hard evidence of bribery. "There have been rumors to that effect," but no formal complaint has surfaced, said spokeswoman Sue Williams.
She said reports that someone was ejected Monday for unethical behavior had been investigated and found to be groundless. The agency disclosed no further details and UNESCO security service refused to discuss the issue.
The outcry against Hosni focused on his threat in the Egyptian parliament last year to personally burn any Israeli book he found in Egypt's famed Library of Alexandria. Hosni, a painter who has been Egypt's culture minister for more than two decades, made the comment in an attempt to defend himself against charges by Egyptian lawmakers of being soft on Israel.
He later apologized for the remark, saying it was spontaneous and a manifestation of his anger at Palestinian suffering. But critics kept up the pressure, accusing him of several anti-Semitic comments over the years.
Bokova gained ground at the last minute as other candidates dropped out, partly because of efforts to find a strong challenger to Hosni.
Bokova speaks fluent English, Russian, Spanish and French. Her father was a Communist Party official who was editor-in-chief of the party newspaper. She joined the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry's UN and disarmament department in 1976, and witnessed Bulgaria's transformation from an Eastern bloc nation to an EU member.
Her win must be validated at the UNESCO general conference planned for October 15, the organization's media office said. She is to replace current leader Koichiro Matsuura of Japan on November 15.
Roee Nahmias contributed to this report