Burning Our Heritage
Why is the Egyptian military letting our history go up in smoke?
CAIRO – On the evening of Saturday, Dec. 17, while thousands of protesters confronted military police in downtown Cairo, I stood watching a valuable piece of Egypt's cultural heritage go up in smoke. As Molotov cocktails and bullets flew around the cabinet building, where the clashes were concentrated, the nearby Egyptian Scientific Institute, a decrepit and neglected old building full of rare books and valuable manuscripts, had caught fire. I cried in disbelief. What had brought me -- and Egypt -- to this point?
CAIRO – On the evening of Saturday, Dec. 17, while thousands of protesters confronted military police in downtown Cairo, I stood watching a valuable piece of Egypt’s cultural heritage go up in smoke. As Molotov cocktails and bullets flew around the cabinet building, where the clashes were concentrated, the nearby Egyptian Scientific Institute, a decrepit and neglected old building full of rare books and valuable manuscripts, had caught fire. I cried in disbelief. What had brought me — and Egypt — to this point?
I had not come back home to witness such sights. In early December, I took a break from my graduate studies in Australia to return to Cairo and vote for the first time in my life. I proudly cast ballots on Thursday, Dec. 15, for the candidates I thought would best represent me in post-revolutionary Egypt’s first parliament. Then, the next day, I woke up to news of renewed clashes between soldiers and protesters staging a sit-in in front of the Egyptian cabinet to pressure the new government formed by Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri to fulfill their growing list of demands. The army, in a surprise early morning attack, had swooped in on the protesters, attacking them brutally with rocks, batons, and live bullets to force them to leave the street. Qasr al-Aini Street and the cabinet building had become a war zone of broken glass, strewn rocks, blood, and smoke.
I joined the protest at noon, right after I heard that there were clashes, not only to show solidarity with my fellow Egyptians against the brutality of the security forces but also to document the events via my Twitter account, where I posted photos and live-streamed videos that offered clear proof of the army’s attack on civilians.
There was a rhythm to the clashes. Protesters would press forward in the street in front of the cabinet building, only to be pushed back by the army and plainclothes policemen. At around noon, we noticed large rocks and furniture falling on our heads — only to realize, to our horror, that policemen and soldiers were hurling the objects at us from the cabinet’s roof, making each projectile as deadly as a bullet. Later that evening, the army fired live ammunition at the protesters, possibly as a reaction to the protesters’ use of Molotov cocktails. The plain-clothed police and army then started throwing Molotovs themselves. Many people were fatally hurt, including a Emad Effat, a senior cleric from al-Azhar University who died from a gunshot wound to the heart. Over the next few days, more than 15 martyrs would lose their lives.
It was on the next day, Dec. 17, as violence once again erupted near the cabinet, that the Egyptian Scientific Institute building — set up in 1798 at the request of Napoleon Bonaparte — was set ablaze. Bonaparte had established the institution only two months after landing at Alexandria, modelling it after the Institute de France in Paris and tasking it with the "research, study, and publication of physical, industrial and historical facts about Egypt," according to the Scholarly Societies Project. Since then, the institute has housed many cultural treasures that document the country’s rich history. Its library boasted a collection of 192,000 books, journals, and manuscripts, some dating back before the early 19th century. Amongst its prized collection was a copy of the famous "Description de l’Égypte," the handwritten and bound volumes created during Bonaparte’s time in Egypt.
On Saturday, the building burned for hours before firemen finally arrived. As the fighting continued around us, we ran into the institute to save whatever books we could find. We were able to protect some books and journals, some dating from the early 1800s.
Dodging falling chunks of roof, we left the smouldering building with our arms piled high with books, only to get pelted with rocks and glass by policemen and hired thugs standing on the roof of the building next door. While firemen ultimately managed to contain the fire, the water that they used destroyed many of the remaining books — turning invaluable scientific relics into nothing but charred fossils.
Those books we were able to save, we handed to the army unit that was blocking Sheikh Raihan Street. The irony of handing the books to the army while uniformed soldiers and plainclothes police continued their attack on us from the adjacent roof was lost on nobody.
Egypt lost much more than a building that night. "Description de l’Égypte" was destroyed, along with many other rare manuscripts, including historical maps used to delineate Egypt’s border and an original map that played an important role in Israel’s withdrawal from Taba in 1989. Since then, volunteers have been working to try to repair and preserve the volumes and documents that were saved. The historic building itself was completely burned and its roof had fully collapsed by the next day.
Who is to blame? There are many contradicting reports. Some say that a protester aiming to throw a Molotov cocktail at the army to resist their brutal attack missed his target and hit the institute instead. Other reports say that hired thugs intentionally set the building on fire to discredit the protesters, bringing back memories of the Great Cairo Fire of 1952 and the conspiracy theories behind it. The official government narrative on state television was that unnamed baltagiya (thugs) had set the building on fire and looted it. Only independent Egyptian TV stations told the real story of us rescuing the institute’s treasures, and the New York Times ran a blog post with a photo of me saving some of the ancient books.
Regardless of who lit the fire, it is clear that the only people to gain from this shameful disaster are the elements of the old regime who benefit from this state of chaos and anarchy, which is slowly but surely chipping away public support for the protesters, who were once depicted as heroes but are now increasingly portrayed as thugs and vandals seeking to destroy and destabilize Egypt.
Ultimately, I believe that the blame falls squarely on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as the de facto ruling body in Egypt. According to Article 6 of the UNESCO declaration concerning the intentional destruction of cultural heritage, "A State that intentionally destroys or intentionally fails to take appropriate measures to prohibit, prevent, stop, and punish any intentional destruction of cultural heritage of great importance for humanity, whether or not it is inscribed on a list maintained by UNESCO or another international organization, bears the responsibility for such destruction, to the extent provided for by international law." In other words, regardless of how the fire started, under international law, the Egyptian state, personified by the SCAF, is responsible for this destruction.
The immolation of Egypt’s cultural heritage is not without precedent. During Hosni Mubarak’s time, there were several similar incidents, including a mysterious fire that destroyed a large part of the Shura Council building housing Egypt’s 200-year-old legislative body. In another incident, vandals destroyed and looted several objects from the Egyptian Museum during the revolution itself on Jan. 30. Protesters formed a human shield around the museum while Egyptian authorities initially did nothing.
The truth is that the SCAF cannot be trusted with our heritage. The military’s response to the fire is a classic example. The fire brigade was sent to the institute hours late, and the firemen, in their attempt to control the raging fire, destroyed more of the books and manuscripts. Meanwhile, the army continued its attacks on the protesters even as they sought to salvage part of Egypt’s heritage.
Since the carnage that happened in December, the SCAF has been busy trying to pit the blame on anyone but itself. The military arrested 73 minors, prompting calls from UNICEF to demand protection for Egypt’s children. A Muslim cleric and a prominent activist were summoned to the police and questioned about their role in the violence. Even former presidential hopeful Ayman Nour was summoned and questioned about his alleged role. The SCAF has consistently fostered conspiracy theories in attempting to explain all clashes that have happened, without presenting credible evidence of the "hidden hands" constantly blamed for the violence in the official narrative.
The Jan. 25th revolution brought out the best in the Egyptian people, and it continues to do so. Unfortunately, however, it has also brought out some of the worst in people, manifested in part by the continued damage inflicted on our 7,000-year-old culture. We owe it to future generations of Egyptians to preserve and maintain this heritage, and we have failed to do so to date. I pray that we do not fail again.
More from Foreign Policy
Chinese Hospitals Are Housing Another Deadly Outbreak
Authorities are covering up the spread of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia.
Henry Kissinger, Colossus on the World Stage
The late statesman was a master of realpolitik—whom some regarded as a war criminal.
The West’s False Choice in Ukraine
The crossroads is not between war and compromise, but between victory and defeat.
Washington wants to get tough on China, and the leaders of the House China Committee are in the driver’s seat.