Thursday 3 February 2011

Egypt Looting: Responsibility

The alarming reports of the attempted looting of museums and storerooms and of clandestine artefact-seeking diggings on archaeological sites in Egypt is worrying and upsetting for those who care about the past and our ability to study it. Collectors however are having a field day, using it to attack the tenets of the preservationist lobby.
Antiquity dealers' lobbyist Peter Tompa asked:
whether concerns about jeopardizing excavation permits has quieted archaeologists from raising the question who really should be held responsible for putting Egypt's unparallelled cultural treasures in jeopardy.
I do not think anyone who has been watching this is not considering who is responsible and what is behind this (besides - unlike the 'social media' of the collectors and dealers who are tellingly silent on the issue - what we can do to reduce the damage already done).

The looting began on 'Angry Friday', 28th January, with the two break-ins at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (gift shop and the upper floor event) and reports started coming in the next day that at the same time all over the country (as it seemed at first) the looting of museum storerooms and sites started. This coincided with the withdrawal of security forces from not only the streets, but also the surroundings of archaeological monuments (as seems to have happened at Luxor). The initial reports concerned Friday and Saturday 29th were appearing early on Sunday 31st January.

In an effort to deal with the growing crisis, in a cabinet reshuffle, a new government was established on January 31, 2011. As part of this a new Ministry of Antiquities was formed and at its head was then placed Zahi Hawass, former head of the SCA (formerly dependent on the Ministry of Culture). The new Minister of the Interior is Mahmoud Wagdy. He replaces General Habib Ibrahim El Adly (Eladly), (b. 1938) who had himself replaced General Hassan al-Alfi as interior minister after the November 1997 Luxor massacre.

An interesting and significant development today is that, as was announced in Cairo this morning by the new Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, there is now the intention to investigate the events of the past few days which has led to scenes of such violence and destruction and bring those responsible for justice. Simultaneously with that announcement, it has just been reported that Eladly's assets have been frozen and he has been prevented from leaving the country.

Although looting has undoubtedly taken place, a number of the initial reports seem to have been false (or panic-induced exaggeration). The suspicion is emerging that some of this might have been deliberate misinformation which drew on the lessons of the looting of the Iraqi Museum in Baghdad and was an attempt to undermine the sympathy for the protesters both within Egypt and abroad.

Vignette: on the way out, (General) Habib Ibrahim El Adly

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