Wednesday 20 April 2011

From Egyptian Museum to 'Torture Chamber': Some Questions

This is quite a disturbing article, and got me questioning a few assumptions we have all been making about the looting of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. Some things were not making sense, still do not. We are not getting any reliable information from the Museum, or anyone else, and are struggling trying to make sense of what information we have been fed. Look at what Ali Abdel Mohsen writes here:
Most Egyptians would agree that the 25 January revolution deserves a place in the Egyptian Museum — the most prominent and well-established museum in the country, and a fixture in Tahrir Square, the center of the protests. But allegations that the ruling armed forces used the museum building to incarcerate, violently interrogate, and abuse pro-democracy protesters has indelibly changed the site's history. Is the legacy of the Egyptian Museum, once the celebrated home of Egypt’s most prized ancient artifacts, now a “torture chamber”?

Shortly after the military stepped in to fill the void left by the withdrawal of security forces, and to put a cap on the subsequent spiraling chaos, rumors began to spread that the armed forces were detaining and abusing Tahrir Square protesters within the walls of the Egyptian Museum, which, likely due to its proximity to the square and tight security, was being used as their makeshift command center. These accounts were particularly common during the most recent attempts by the armed forces to clear the square, when even young men and women attempting to assist soldiers found themselves captured and dragged off to the nearby museum. Eyewitnesses to these sudden and inexplicable arrests were quick to report what they had seen, and as the news spread, public pressure guaranteed the quick release of several museum detainees, who were then able to confirm what, until then, had only been a series of distressing rumors. “When the army began arresting people, we weren’t sure what was happening to them, or why they were being kept at the museum,” said journalist and political activist Rasha Azab. “We would go and protest these arrests outside the museum, without knowing what was happening inside.” Azab was herself arrested and detained in the museum on 9 March. “The armed forces took me to an area directly behind the main building, where the Chamber of Tourism is located,” she said, to an area she describes as “an improvised cell block.” Azab recalls the harsh tactics used against other detainees. “The men were being tortured with electric shocks, whips and wires,” she said. “The women were tied to fences and trees.” The earlier stages of this alarming phenomenon were marked by reports of “forced virginity tests” to which several female detainees said they were subjected.
The rest here: Ali Abdel Mohsen, 'Egypt's Museums: From Egyptian Museum to torture chamber', al Masry al Youm, Wed, 20/04/2011. As a Polish citizen (remember Martial law of 1981?) I could never really get my head around all the people I met over there (in February and March this year) being so joyful the army was in control. That is just crazy when you consider the links between the Mubarak regime ad the military, and the huge privileges the military has there - which of course it is naive in the extreme to think they are going to give up. Trouble ahead I fear.

The point is that its not just the (sic) "tight security" (unless that means it has a fence around it), that led to the museum "being used as their makeshift command centre". It was the fact that just before the military arrived on the square, the building had been looted and international opinion was outraged by the pictures of two ripped-off mummy heads lying on the ground. Or WAS it looted? The mummy heads are still unexplained, they and a whole bagfull of human bones were reportedly/apparently brought into the Museum from outside, not a normal looter's way of doing things. I have all along suspected that things were not what they seemed with those heads.

I am beginning to wonder about the looting. I've spent a lot of effort trying to understand this event. I did not understand what I was reading in the press in Poland when the story was unfolding, and by chance had the opportunity to go and see the site of the crime at first hand just after the museum re-opened and then again a few weeks later. This led me to question the official version, some of which I wrote about here, some of it I have written up elsewhere and am still deciding what to do with it.

On reading that article by Ali Abdel Mohsen another thought came to me, or rather some more questions.

Readers will remember that at the beginning, it was "not looting"; there was "nothing missing" we were told firmly, just a few things taken out of cases and thrown (recte put - see the cartonnage mummy bands) on the floor, much of the damage easily repairable. This, we were told was done by terminally stupid people, people who knew nothing of the value of the objects they were handling. Yeah, right. The red mercury explanation was not an explanation either.

We then got conflicting stories about the number of these terminally stupid people the army caught. Some sources say "one" other sources (or the same source at a different time) say "nine", mysteriously corrected to "ten". Hawass said at one stage that he had talked with these "people" in army custody but I doubt he actually had. These "people" have now been whisked away to jail and (as far as I am aware), we were not told anything about them - number, name where from, just they have now gone. Now maybe the Egyptian newspapers carried this news and by accident it never appeared in the international press, or maybe this was being kept quiet. Why? This is "news", very good news.

Then the story suddenly changes. Stuff had been taken they now admit; we eventually get a list of the missing objects - but only after a month has gone by. Then the looted objects start suddenly and for no reason appearing. Some naive blokes trying to sell stuff on the internet - just about believable if you think the looters were stupid. There was a 'sting' organized. Then the next lot some guy tried to sell them in the tourist market - not a good place, again maybe just about believable, but we are beginning to get sceptical... THEN the completely fantastic story about a Ministry employee opening a bag by chance on a peripheral metro station and just happening to find four missing objects... too good to be true. Yes, so the story was changed (and I bet we hear a third version before this is over). We never saw the bag did we?

The break-in through a hole in the ceiling, hmmm. Somebody's been watching too many Michael Caine movies, in my opinion it never happened. I think the men came up the stairs in the southeast corner of the building.

Then more questions, with interestingly uniform answers. Who saw the rope by which the men allegedly entered the museum and the smashed window that was not smashed? The Army. Who removed the rope before the Al Jazeera film crew got there? (Presumably) the Army. Who called in the Al Jazeera film crew? (not known, but the Army let them in), Who took away the men allegedly captured before anyone got there in the morning? The Army. Who was first on the scene to find the smashed cases on the night of 28th January? The Army. Who was in charge of the building when the bloodstains which do not seem to be visible in the Al Jazeera film of 29th Jan appeared on the floor by the following Wednesday? The army. Who was in charge of the building when the crews were going around the museum trying to see what was missing? Yes, you know who. Who was it who we were told actually prevented the Museum curatorial staff free access to the galleries in the first days and weeks (?) after the army took over the building to secure the finds? OK, so you are getting the drift...

While there is no doubt that some time in the evening or night of 28th January cases were smashed and objects removed from them and broken and scattered, what is the actual evidence that the Egyptian Museum was looted at all? There is nothing which comes from an external independent source. Not even when some guy found a package in a metro station on the other side of town - the local police were not called in to the find when there would have been some external documentation (protocol, statement for example), he (allegedly) picked it up and brought it into the Ministry ! The Akhenaton figure was allegedly found outside the museum ... but again details are scant, the teenager who found them never appeared in our newspapers (was he on Egyptian TV?), but that find is so suspicious it could have been staged.

Suppose the "looting" was totally staged to explain why the army was taking over the Museum?

The army needed access to a big building on Tahrir Square, the NDP headquarters had been burnt out. But they can't just walk into a museum and take it over without good reason (well, they can because they have guns and tanks, but its not very good PR). So - and this is a question, not a statement, was the "looting" of the museum staged by the authorities to allow the army to move in to be near the protesters? Are they still there not because there is any real threat to the museum, but because its a good base to keep an eye on the Square?

Let us not forget that 28th Jan was the night that the police were withdrawn from all over Egypt, thugs and criminals were released from the prisons, and people were sent out to loot banks and shops - some of whom when caught turned out to be card-carrying security forces personnel in civilian clothing. This whole series of actions was not planned minutes before they happened, the degree to which they were coordinated shows it took more than a few telephone calls to set it in action. This creation of anarchy was a deliberate operation planned at least several hours beforehand and authorised from above (El Adly?) intended to compromise the demonstrators and justify the imposition of martial law. I suspect that events overtook the original plans (several people at the top were dismissed earlier that day, and the army refused to shoot at demonstrators) and it turned out differently than intended. It is in this context that I would see the deliberate creation of the appearance of looting in the museum. As I have suggested, it is entirely plausible that those involved went beyond their orders and took things they were not supposed to. But as I have suggested, are there any grounds (other than this is what the media are being told) for saying objects were actually taken by those people at that time? Perhaps not.

There is one other interesting thing, some of the people from Mubarak's administration (including El Adly) involved in the events of 25th-28th Jan are in custody and are being questioned by procurators working for the military government now in control of the country. But not - as far as we have heard - anything connected with the looting of the Museum (though of course there are more important things to deal with too). Yet El-Adly, even if he was not personally responsible (?) for this, surely has a very good background for some informed speculation on who might have been and where the artefacts are now.

So if there were no thieves, they can't have got the missing objects, so where would they then be? Are they perhaps in a military store somewhere, and that the plan is to release them in dribs and drabs, just to keep memory of the "looting" fresh to justify a military presence in the Museum? We remember Hawass saying a few days ago, "when we received the objects...". now that could be a slip of the tongue for "retrieved", but is it?

When do the army plan to withdraw from the Museum and hand its security over to the Museum's own beefed-up security staff and their security cameras?

Can we press for a promise from the candidates for government if it comes to elections in the Autumn that when there is a free and democratic government in Egypt, since we cannot get any sensible answers from the Museum at present, there will be a commission which carries out an enquiry into the FULL facts about the looting of the Cairo Egyptian Museum and publishes a report? Then we will not need any more 'what-if?' conspiracy theories to try and explain the very odd set of facts with which we who care about Egyptian antiquities and archaeology are faced.

Vignette: Mummy heads on the floor - the question is no longer whose heads they were, but where this photograph was taken and how the heads got there, and who put them there and drew the film crew's attention to them. The fragile mummy bands were removed from their case and laid, not thrown (because they'd have broken), on the floor - this is neither theft or vandalism and does not make sense in any of the official scenarios about what happened on 28th Jan 2011.


samarkeolog said...

I agree it's a possibility - but wouldn't it've been better publicity if they'd moved in before and thus prevented any looting? It seems like a needlessly complicated operation, so I am still sceptical.

Paul Barford said...

Well, I am just posing the question, so am "sceptical" too. But this is the problem when you realise that everybody is being 'economical with the truth', where do the lies stop? Why actually do we have to believe anything they are telling us, when they clearly are trying to pull the wool over everybody's eyes over some aspects? (The rope from the roof, the bag in the metro etc etc).

The "official" version of the guys coming in from the roof also has a huge amount of complications when you start to analyse it.

But its not quite as simple as you say. We should not look at this from today's perspective. On 28th/29th Jan. the army was not moving in to take over the country, it was still behind Mubarak and was there (ostensibly) just to restore security on the streets. It was also presenting itself as - if not the people's friend - neutral in the conflict. Staging a crime in the museum and whipping up international outrage about it would have been a clever way to slip into the museum right next to the protesters without raising suspicions... Just a thought.

Paul Barford said...

....remember all the fuss we outside Egypt made, petitions, databases, facebook pages "you MUST protect the Museum", and we too are jolly happy that the Army sat there in their tanks and jeeps "protecting the museum" - when it turned out and turns out that this is not really all they are doing there.

Would we have done any of that - urge the army to occupy the Museum grounds and buildings - without the looting? Because of the looting I've not heard (though I may have missed something) western commentators saying as a consequence of these allegations its time for the soldiers stationed on the north side of the square to return to their barracks - and why not?

samarkeolog said...

I really do think it's a distinct possibility. Certainly, if we talk about a more general attempt to show unrest that required a military reimposition of order, then it's very plausible.

However, if we're talking about an entire strategy constructed solely to get the military access to a single building, I think they could have easily said that they were establishing a military post at the museum for its protection, and archaeologists, and the international community more broadly, would have simply said, "Iraq Museum, no military, looting; Egyptian Museum, military, no looting...", and accepted the worth of the military presence at face value.

Paul Barford said...

Well, as I said, I do not know, I was just exploring this question - which would be totally unnecessary if we had a proper full report from the Museum explaining in full detail what (they say) had happened instead of an incomplete handful of facts and dubious sounding anecdotes which just do not add up.

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