Saturday 17 December 2011

Cairo: Institute D'Egypte Burning

For several days there has been an attempted clampdown of the military forces on the continuing street protests in Cairo (warning: distressing video of events, some right outside teh Egyptian Museum). One of the victims today of the violence that has erupted has been the Institute D'Egypte and its library off Qasr al-Aini Street in central Cairo.

The institute is considered the oldest scientific institute in Egypt. It was established as L'Institute d’Egypte in August 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte during the French invasion of Egypt. Its mission is to advance high quality research in various fields, ranging from biology and mathematics to fine arts and archaeology. Its library contains more than 200,000 books, including the original volumes of the "Description de l'Égypte" (Description of Egypt), begun in 1798 by French scientists in Egypt. Professor Mahmoud al-Shernoby, the president of the institute, told state TV in a phone interview that the damage is a “great loss” to Egypt and that those “who caused this disaster should be punished.”

The fire started on the lower floors of the building, but then spread to the higher floors. It soon got out of control and by the time firemen reached the site, there had already occurred a lot of damage, the state TV reported that the fire damaged the whole building and all of its collections. According to eyewitnesses (reported by both MENA and state TV) protesters were seen throwing a Molotov cocktail at the institute, aiming at stone-throwing soldiers at the Shura Council building, but the projectile missed the intended target and instead landed in the Egyptian Scientific Institute (the website of Youm7 newspaper has alleged that a protester was set on fire after trying to set the building on fire, but no other source confirmed this news).

The institute can be seen burning in the background of this You Tube video from the article by Robert Mackey and Elizabeth Harris, dec 17th "Video Shows Egyptian Soldiers Beating and Shooting at Protesters":

Apparently some of the charred books and documents and other material have been taken by protesters to a nearby church, while the military authorities seem also to have secured some of the material, but in the chaos, it is not clear what has been saved and what can be done with it. Member of the public helps carry nineteenth century volumes from the charred building (Adel Abdel Ghafar, via Yfrog).

One other possibility needs also to be investigated, that the fire was started deliberately by the military authorities (who certainly had access to the interior of the building before the fire broke out) to discredit the protesters. See this quote from the NYT article by Mackey and Harris:

Perhaps responding to the flood of video evidence of brutality by soldiers, Egypt’s military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, tried to push back online by posting footage of its own on YouTube that appeared to show some civilians engaged in what looked like vandalism during the unrest. While activists posted a number of photographs and video clips of men in plain clothes hurling rocks at protesters, the blogger and activist Gigi Ibrahim reported on Saturday night that “thugs” interviewed on Egyptian state television claimed that they had been paid by protesters to wreak havoc [...]. To Ms Ibrahim, this was a sign of how little things have changed since Hosni Mubarak handed over power to his generals in February. The military council, Ms. Ibrahim observed, appeared to be “using strong state TV propaganda against revolutionaries to turn public on us,” just as the Mubarak government had done almost a year ago.

Whatever the truth, it is clear that once again an irreplaceable cultural resource has become the victim of the continuing unrest in Cairo which is a matter for concern of all of us who care about the world's cultural heritage.

UPDATE 18th Dec 2011: The fire is now reported to be out, only now will we learn (or perhaps, as in the case of the Egyptian Museum, not) the full scale of the damage and what needs to be done to save as much as possible from this terrible disaster.

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