Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 March 2009
Issue No. 938
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hands off, and we mean it

Parliament is shortly expected to endorse a draft law outlining severer penalties for antiquities trafficking and copyright of Egypt's heritage, Nevine El-Aref reports

Protecting Egypt's cultural heritage from treasure hunters, retrieving looted and illegally-smuggled antiquities and generating the revenue necessary to restore and conserve this country's heritage are key priorities in a new antiquities law soon to be reviewed by the People's Assembly.

The new law, if passed, will also restrict photography of archaeological sites and artefacts and impose intellectual copyright controls on key Egyptian images such as the pyramids.

"The current law, 117/1983, is no longer suitable since the penalties it imposes for antiquity trafficking are not harsh enough. We need to stiffen penalties in order to stop further trafficking," Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says.

Egypt first issued an antiquities law in 1835. This has been modified five times, most essentially in 1912 and 1983. The 193 law contains several loopholes, and the penalties did not prevent looting and urban encroachment on archaeological sites.

In the 19th and the early 20th centuries, treasured objects were shipped abroad in response to European interest. To mention just a few, the first collection in the Vienna Museum was granted by Khedive Abbas I and Said Pasha to the Austrian Prince Archidum Maximium, while the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde in Paris was given to the French King Louis Philippe by Mohamed Ali in return for the clock in the Citadel. The offering of Egyptian antiquities to foreign governments became a diplomatic trend.

Foreign excavation missions working in Egypt at that time acted as antiquities traders and sold vast numbers of Egyptian artefacts to their own national museums, creating great ancient Egyptian collections in the Louvre, the British Museum and the Berlin Museum, among others. Another opportunity for foreigners to obtain artefacts was through applying the division policy on newly-discovered antiquities. National and international laws at that time approved the trading of antiquities, and monthly auctions were held in one of the Egyptian Museum galleries.

After the completion of the Nubian temples salvage operation, the Egyptian government offered a large number of monuments to foreign countries as a gesture of thanks for their efforts. The Dabur Temple was given to the Spanish government and reconstructed in a gallery at the Madrid Museum, while in 1974 the small Dendereh Temple was handed to the American president Richard Nixon. The Egyptian government continued to offer items of its heritage or to sell them on the international market until the last modification of the law in 1983, which prohibited all such activities. All antiquities in Egypt became the property of the state and their unlawful removal from the country subsequent to that date is theft.

According to Achraf El-Achmawi, the SCA's legal consultant, the draft law focuses on five articles. The first is properly and legally to identify three main terms -- the SCA's permanent committee; the inviolable area around every monument; and the land immediately next to the archaeological site -- in an attempt to provide all the necessary security measures and a healthy environmental atmosphere. Such an article will put an end to any further building around a monument and will remove recent encroachment ones.

The article in the old law stipulating that the police were the only authority permitted to remove any encroachment on archaeological sites or monuments would change. The responsibility would be given to the SCA's secretary-general, or to someone he entrusted, while the police would serve only as a law-enforcement agency while the secretary-general's decision was being executed.

On a request of the minister of culture and the approval of the prime minister, the law can classify any object or edifice on Egypt's heritage list even if its age is less than 100-years. Classification will depend on its historical, religious, artistic or international value.

The second article to be repealed is the section of the law allowing possession of antiquities. A year after the approval of the law, all owners of Egyptian antiquities must hand over all objects to the SCA, which in its turn will install them in their archaeological storehouses.

Article 30 has been added to the law stipulating that the SCA is the only authority competent to carry out restoration and preservation work on all Egyptian monuments, archaeological sites and historical edifices. The minister of culture will have the authority to assign any scientific authority or mission to execute any such work, but under complete supervision of the SCA's secretary-general.

As for penalties, El-Achmawi said these had been doubled or tripled. A smuggler who was sentenced to 15 years and fined LE50,000 would now be sentenced to life imprisonment and fined from LE100,000 to 500,000. Anyone who steals, hides, or collects authentic artefacts, or owns them without permission, will be imprisoned for 25 years and fined from LE50,000-250,000, instead of three years' hard labour and a LE100 fine. According to the new law, stealing or helping to rob a part of a genuine piece or intent deliberately to disfigure it will land a sentence of 15 years and a fine of from LE50,000-100,000.

"The new law does not omit penalties for those who write their names or fix advertising billboards on monument walls," El-Achmawi said. He continued that such actions would be considered a violation of Egyptian heritage, and the penalty would range from six to 12 months or a fine of LE150,000.

The new law allows clemency for anyone who confesses to or divulges information about an antiquities crime in condition that his or her confession leads to the arrest of partners in the theft or smuggling. The SCA will assign experts to check the authenticity of any confiscated objects in an attempt to guarantee an honest and accurate decision.

It will also prohibit the production of exact replicas (1:1 scale) without special permission from the SCA or payment of a fee. If an object is five metres tall, for example, a product cannot be made in the same dimension without the SCA's permission, but a taller or shorter replica is acceptable. "Manufacturers violating this article will face five years in prison and pay a LE200,000 fine," El-Achmawi said.

Sanctions would be placed for using photographs of archaeological sites or artefacts for commercial purposes without the permission of the SCA. Professional photography inside museums and archaeological sites will be completely prohibited unless permission has been given. Using photographs for educational purposes, by governmental authorities, for tourist attraction and for personal use will be free of charge; although the intellectual property on its own "logos" and trademarks will remain with the authority.

The SCA will be the only authority allowed to use museum logos, and others will have to pay royalties. Twelve logos have already been registered. These include the Giza and Saqqara Pyramids; the Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic museums in Cairo; the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria; and the Nubian Museum in Aswan, as well as Luxor and Abu Simbel temples.

In collaboration with the Ministry of Industry, El-Achmawi said, the SCA was studying the idea of establishing an economic body to ensure the implementation of the law.

"We must exploit our archaeological assets properly in order to earn more money from providing efficient services instead of letting others do so," Hawass said. He told the story of an Italian group that paid $60,000 to photograph all of the objects exhibited within the Egyptian Museum. The Italians quickly recouped their investment -- and made an additional $50,000 in profit -- by selling the right to re-use the photographs. "The Chinese are making lots of money selling replicas of our antiquities," Hawass commented.

So what would be the fate of the pyramid- shaped Las Vegas Luxor casino in the United States and other ancient Egyptian-themed parks and malls around the world? Hawass said that they were resorts that looked nothing like Egyptian heritage but were "replicas of the imagination".

Funds generated by the proposed law would go towards the preservation of historic sites, Hawass said. "We want to protect Egyptian antiquities. We want to protect our values. This is the most important thing," he added.

El-Achmawi also acknowledged the difficulties of a global copyright witch-hunt. "If you have a small shop and your trade is very limited, I will not take money from you," he said. "But if you are a big company, like some of these Chinese companies that make a lot of money from making replicas of antiquities, according to the law, I can take the fees."

The draft law, which has the approval of the Egyptian cabinet and State Council, has drawn criticism from foreign legal experts. According to an article published in the National Geographic magazine, these experts said that "such laws violate international copyright conventions and are unlikely to be enforced."

The article went on: "Egypt and the US, for example, are both parties to international treaties such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which essentially guarantees that an author of an artistic work from a member country is awarded the same rights that other member countries allow their own nationals."

In this case, however, experts say that the Egyptian legislation would not fit within US and European laws, meaning they could not be enforced abroad.

"You can do it within your own borders if your own laws that permit you to do it," William Patry, a former US copyright lawyer, told National Geographic, adding that copyrighting property dated back thousands of years. "But it's pretty unlikely that it's going to be enforced in other countries. Copyright is a pretty territorial thing." He was also quoted that: "The other problem is that there is so much access to this stuff, it could be someone who has never even been to Egypt who copies it. We still have access to images on the web from other people."

El-Achmawi told Al-Ahram Weekly that such a law could easily be implemented both in Egypt and abroad. He explained that in 1995 Egypt signed the TRIPS agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, which provides a broad international safeguard enabling Egypt legally to pursue whomever imitates its registered trademarks. The agreement also provides international copyright and trademark protection.

"According to this agreement, Egypt will easily implement its law abroad and in the 198 TRIPS member countries. Diplomatic channels and arbitration will be also means of implementing the law abroad," El-Achmawi said.

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