I have been following the uprising in Egypt since it started with some trepidation worrying that the famous Cairo museum and other Egyptian institutions that hold the country’s antiquities might be looted. That fear came true when I read a statement by Zahi Hawass, newly appointed Egyptian Minister of Antiquities and longtime advocate for returning Egyptian artworks to Egypt, stating that some criminal elements made attempts to steal artworks and jewelry from the museum during the protests of recent days. Here’s how Hawass described his feeling about the situation:
My heart is broken and my blood is boiling. I feel that everything I have done in the last nine years has been destroyed in one day, but all the inspectors, young archaeologists, and administrators, are calling me from sites and museums all over Egypt to tell me that they will give their life to protect our antiquities. Many young Egyptians are in the streets trying to stop the criminals.
The intervention of ordinary Egyptians to protect their cultural heritage from thieves is welcome news in this situation. Hawass also noted that:
Due to the circumstances, this behaviour is not surprising; criminals and people without a conscience will rob their own country. If the lights went off in New York City, or London, even if only for an hour, criminal behavior will occur. I am very proud that Egyptians want to stop these criminals to protect Egypt and its heritage.
Hawass is maintaining a running log on his website to inform the world about the state of the antiquities in Egypt. Yesterday, he updated his original comment on looting by stating that the Egyptian people are now protecting the antiquities and that they are largely safe.
I am sure that Western observers will point to the situation in Cairo as a validation of their argument that African artworks should not be returned to their African countries of origin because descendants of their African producers cannot be trusted to safeguard them (let us forget for now the obvious fact that these works were held and managed by their producers for centuries until European colonization and its attendant violence destroyed African societies and resulted in the original pillaging of its cultural patrimony). While the situation in Egypt is problematic, it is actually shows that ordinary people will rise up to protect their cultural heritage in situations like this, if the need arises. I am watching to see how the situation will play out eventually. My hope is that the artworks remain safe and that Hawass’s immense groundbreaking work to repatriate Egypt’s antiquities will not be destroyed by criminals interested in short-term gain.
That said, I want to lay the blame for the situation in Egypt squarely at President Hosni Mubarak’s feet, and for his continued support by Western governments who argue that chaos will ensure if he leaves. Transitions are chaotic by their very nature, since they inevitably produce power vacuums. There is however credible evidence that the chaos we have seen in Egypt over the past two days was orchestrated by elements of the ruling government of Mubarak in order to strike fear into the hearts of people calling for his exit. Already, you can see the change in tone by Western commentators pushing this idea, in an effort to help the beleaguered dictator hold on to his illegitimate government. This effort will fail. Mubarak had 30 years to manage a transition but did not do so: to insist on staying on now that the people have soundly rejected his rule is nothing but the actions of a coward who hopes to bully the people into rejecting their own demands for greater freedom.
I have lived my entire life dealing with African dictators whose devotion to their ego and gross mismanagement of their country’s resources invariably pauperize even the richest African countries. Nigeria is a case in point, and now Egypt has joined this inglorious group of countries ruled by brigands. I am not essentially opposed to “strong-man” rule because some countries need such a guiding hand early on to establish some kind of order and focus for the future. Kermal Attaturk did it in Turkey and handed over to his successors a strong and increasingly thriving country, one of the only two Islamic majority countries to have a stable democracy. All our African leaders seem to do however is pauperize their countries while stashing away the national wealth in Western institutions. They are aided in this by the same Western countries who give lip service to democracy but promote authoritarianism in the Moslem world and even go so far as to subvert democratic governance in these countries when the results run counter to their expectations.
What I cannot understand about African dictators is why they are not more concerned about their actions? Coming from Nigeria, I understand the impact of corruption on the national psyche: Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries on earth. However, all countries are corrupt to some extent and the scale of corruption in the USA for instance dwarfs anything you can find in Nigeria (google Bernie Madoff, and the wholesale cooptation of the American electoral system by corporate money to get a sense of what I am talking about here. Corruption thrives on a very simple equation: if the expected punishment for corruption is lighter than the expected gain, then corruption thrives, and vice versa). It is perhaps a contradiction in terms to expect a corrupt leader to be concerned about the welfare of his impoverished people. BUT REALLY!!! WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN STEALING ONE BILLION DOLLARS AND ONE HUNDRED BILLION DOLLARS (aside from the obvious fact that both destroy a country by starving it of needed resources)? All these dictators do is steal public money without expending any effort to improve public infrastructure. Mubarak has had thirty years to elevate Egypt to a higher status of political and economic existence. He hasn't. If we were today looking at an Egypt that has excellent social and economic infrastructure and good conditions of living, one might be able to make an argument that Mubarak’s exit be delayed to allow a peaceful transition to unfold. His government has underperformed and has been based on running a police state, all in the name of keeping stability. Now that he has his back to the wall, he has sent out his goons to create chaos so that he can hang on to power. I hope he fails in this attempt and that Egypt manages to transition to a new government with minimal disruption.
And I hope Egypt’s antiquities and its museums survive the ongoing transition from Mubarak's misrule intact. They are very important to the struggle for Africa’s cultural patrimony.