Egypt Protests and the Repatriation Debate: Is Egypt Burning?

Also publ UK magazine History Today: April/May 2011

By Jonathan Downs

The anti-government protests in Egypt swept through Cairo and Alexandria before measures could be taken to protect the many thousands of antiquities in museums and archaeological sites across the country. Since the uprising, looting at a number of sites has apparently grown even worse. Understandably this raised fears over the repatriation debate: should artefacts go back to a country apparently so unstable and unable to defend such precious objects? The answer is not as resounding a ‘No’ as many might think.

There can be no question that the population of Egypt has as high a regard for its ancient heritage as it does for winning basic human freedoms. The first people to act in defence of Egypt’s antiquities were not police or government officials, but ordinary Egyptians. As the Party Headquarters in Tahrir Square burned, looters took the opportunity to scale the outer walls of the Cairo Museum, dropping into the yard from overhanging trees. Amid shouts trying to call the vandals back, a phalanx of protesters, who had picked up discarded police truncheons and other implements, linked arms with the Tourism Police, and blockaded the museum to prevent any further incursion. Inside the building, protesters helped police arrest several men caught sacking the ticket office and gift shop, the cry going up ‘we are not like Baghdad’. General Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and Junior Culture Minister Dr Zahi Hawass, prevented from attending the scene by the police curfew, went the following morning to be mobbed by well-wishers and grateful museum defenders; even when the military secured the premises a dedicated unit of protesters, young and old, remained on site throughout the demonstrations.

The same pattern was enacted beyond the cities: within 24 hours of the first major gatherings in central Cairo, a well-organised gang of looters attacked the storehouse magazines of Qantara in eastern Sinai, containing a large number of pieces from the Port Said Museum. According to intermittent reports from archaeologists and overseers, the armed gang reversed a lorry into the area, broke into the storage facility and carted off several crates of priceless treasures. Nomadic Bedouins, originally blamed for some of the thefts, lent their support to the recovery operation, retrieving stolen artefacts and returning them to the authorities. Officials learned that the Qantara site had suffered the loss of 288 objects – Mohamed Abdal Maksoud, Archaeology Director of Lower Egypt confirmed to Zahi Hawass on 3 February that every item had been recovered.

There were other clashes across the country: local residents took it upon themselves to watch over the sites, beating off looting criminals. According to a report from Middle Egypt on 3 February, ‘The situation in Luxor is reported to be deteriorating as well, with tear gas and thugs being used against the protesters. Thus far, however, the people are still protecting the temples and museum…

As people swarmed in the streets of Alexandria, there were fears for the new library, but a communiqué from Dr Ismail Serageldin on 30 January put these to rest: ‘…Young demonstrators have been acting responsibly protecting their own public institutions including the library…’ Equally surprising came the following: ‘The Library doors are still open with reduced hours as the curfew imposed mandates. Our faith in the people of Egypt and our country is boundless.’

In decades past, the chief argument against the repatriation of the Elgin Marbles had been the lack of a secure modern venue in Greece to present and protect the artefacts. With the unveiling of the New Acropolis Museum this stance has now proven untenable. Given this argument, the breakdown of security during the Egyptian protests might be grounds for similar concern – yet this would be merely a convenient pretext rather than adequate grounds for the rejection of a claim: such crises are not peculiarly Egyptian, and in the past have happened closer to home.

In 1990 London witnessed the Poll Tax Riots, where anti-government protests descended into indiscriminate violence in Trafalgar Square – one building was set ablaze, shop and restaurant windows were smashed and businesses looted, cars overturned and set alight, as mounted police charged repeatedly into demonstrators. No Londoners linked arms to protect the artworks in the National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery which front Trafalgar Square and the beginning of Charing Cross Road.

Ironically, the recent rejection by Germany of Egypt’s demand for the return of the bust of Nefertiti makes no reference to Egypt’s stability, despite the political climate or the protests rising at the time – or any fears over the object’s safety or future preservation. On 23 January a press release issued by Egypt’s SCA announced that, after four years’ research into the matter, they had submitted a formal request approved by Prime Minister Dr Ahmed Nazif, and Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny, for the return of the bust. The request was sent to Dr Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, on the strength of Article 13(b) of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970). Through a flurry of German media coverage Nefertiti was declared ‘an icon of Berlin’, rather than of Egypt and, curiously, the ‘best ambassador’ between the two nations. Parzinger rejected the Egyptian claim: according to the Foundation’s press release, the SCA request had not been signed by the Egyptian Prime Minister and was therefore not sufficiently official. Monika Grütters, chairwoman of the Culture Committee in the German Parliament confirmed the rejection curtly: “She will remain here. Egypt has no legal claim.’ Evidently the mass protests, riots and revolutionary change in government (which happened only days after the statement above) have not set the repatriation campaign back at all – which is good news for Egypt.

In the midst of the turmoil facing former President Mubarak, the universally popular Dr Hawass was made a full member of a new cabinet as the Minister of State for the Dept of Antiquities Affairs. He ran a communications room with feeds from all of the major sites across Egypt and kept sources informed with daily reports. In an email of 4 February he said: ‘The most important thing everyone needs to know is that the people in the streets defended the museums, monuments, and sites. When I came into work today, I had to pass through a checkpoint. When the men in the Popular Committees running the checkpoint saw me, they asked,Sir, how is the museum?” These men may not know how to read or write, but they are worried about their cultural heritage.’

However, since the troubles, looting has continued – to such an extent that Zahi Hawass resigned his cabinet post in the first days of March, to the criticism of erstwhile political colleagues. Whether this was linked to the resignation of interim Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq on the same day is unknown. What remains now is the question over security at the remote sites and artefact storehouses – in the face of an international black market second in value only to the drugs trade. Egypt’s planned museum construction programme will obviate most security worries and provide state of the art facilities, much as those currently at the new Alexandria Library.

The almost bloodless revolution of February 2011 showed a unified hunger for human rights and freedoms not seen by many ever before – a hunger that will strengthen the repatriation campaign, not weaken it. All that is required is for the transitional government to implement a more effective security system.

If a joint ownership proposal for the Rosetta Stone between Britain, France and Egypt is tabled by UNESCO in light of this political change, the British Museum should calculate the potential benefits – if ever there were an ambassador created to bridge the cultural divide, it was the multilingual Rosetta Stone, and where better for it to stand than the new Alexandria Library. With events in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran and Libya, the impact of Egyptian popular opinion is clear. As to security measures, only time will tell, but as the new Egyptian state emerges next Autumn, perhaps it would be better to greet it more with a token of welcome than the obstinate and outdated status quo.

Ends

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