Why does the Shura Council’s culture, tourism and media committee want to modify Egypt’s present antiquities law, asks Nevine El-Aref
When Egypt’s new antiquities law was approved by parliament in February 2010, it was described as an important step forward in the protection of Egypt’s heritage since it would provide better protection than the previous Law 117/1983, which imposed too lenient penalties for trafficking.
The new law prohibited all antiquities trading and cancelled the 10 per cent of unexcavated objects previously granted to the foreign excavation missions that had discovered them.
However, now that the Shura Council has taken over legislative powers in Egypt, Fathi Shehab, head of the council’s culture, tourism and media committee, has announced that the committee will call for modifications to the antiquities law as it had several “deficiencies” that needed to be addressed.
Shehab told Sabah Al-Kheir (Good Morning) magazine that the law was unconstitutional because it prevented individuals from disposing of their property freely.
The deficiencies of the pre-2010 law had been due to the fact that it had been drafted a century ago and its makers had not been archaeologists. Shehab said that the new law’s drafters had also treated Khufu’s Pyramid like a 100 year old palace, for example.
The new law also “does not well understand the nature of Egypt’s historical eras and the value of monuments or artefacts,” Shehab said, adding that a proposed amendment to the law would be to redefine the term “antiquity” and classify antiquities into three eras and not just one.
The idea of monumental churches and mosques being used for worship was not clearly enunciated in the law, he said, which did not clearly identify the different ways of using a monument. This, Shehab claimed, allowed antiquities inspectors to “bully” the owners of archaeological sites.
For monuments and artefacts dating to the 19th century and more recently, the amended law would allow individuals to own these and would give greater incentives for their maintenance. These monuments or artefacts, Shehab explained, should be classified into three levels according to terms of ownership, nature and usage.
However, a former legal consultant to the Ministry of State for Antiquities (MSA) who had the lion’s share in drafting the articles of the antiquities law in 2010 described the reasons given to amend the law as “illogical”.
According to Achraf El-Achmawi, amending the new antiquities law for the given reasons simply showed that the whoever suggested them was “unfamiliar with the current antiquities law or any other previous laws concerning antiquities”.
El-Achmawi said that those who had drafted the law had been archaeologists and that this had been standard practice for a century. According to reports and documents from previous committees, three-quarters of those drafting the antiquities law had been archaeologists.
The committee that had drafted the 2010 antiquities law, El-Achmawi pointed out, had included dozens of archaeologists, among them Ali Radwan, former dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University, Zahi Hawass, a former minister of antiquities, the heads of the five MSA antiquities sections and a dozen Supreme Council of Antiquities inspectors, as well as a financial expert, a representative of the Ministry of Tourism and a legal consultant.
“Where did Shehab get the idea that most of the people who had worked on the law were lawyers and not archaeologists?” El-Achmawi asked.
He also described Shehab’s statement about the private ownership of antiquities as being obsolete, adding that stories of antiquities inspectors “bullying” such people were “unfounded”. Shehab “has not read the first article of the recent law,” he said.
This article not only deals with properties that are more than 100 years old, as Shehab had said, but it also defined an “antiquity” as a building or object that was a product of Egyptian civilisation or any other civilisation.
It could be a product of art, science or religion found on Egyptian soil from the pre-historic era up to 100 years before the present, El-Achmawi said. According to the new law, the idea of an antiquity covered any item of historical, archaeological or artistic value that had contributed to Egyptian civilisation or that had been created in Egypt by any other civilisation.
It also covered anything produced in Egypt or bearing any relation to Egypt’s history. All human remains could be considered to be potential antiquities, he said.
El-Achmawi said that the law correctly identified antiquities as objects that were not like those described by Shehab. Not anything that was 100 years old could necessarily be thought of as an antiquity, he said, though this was a standard period in international antiquities laws.
“No one said that the Khufu Pyramid had the same value as any other monument or historic palace,” El-Achmawi said, suggesting that “such a statement does not have a concrete meaning, but is instead designed for media consumption.”
The value of a monument or an antiquity, he added, was a function of its importance to the civilisation that produced it, its impact, and its historical importance. “What Shehab’s statement says is like saying that an airplane is faster than a car,” El-Achmawi said.
In his view, the 2010 law was not unconstitutional and in fact protected private ownership. It was normal to tighten up the law when seeking to protect the country’s antiquities.
“Both the new and the old constitutions allow expropriation of heritage property for public benefit,” El-Achmawi added, explaining that the 2010 antiquities law does not necessarily expropriate antiquities, but instead asks their owners to protect them.
It would be wrong to allow such owners to do what they like with such pieces on the grounds of personal freedom. “This would be absurd,” he said.
Moreover, the 2010 law was endorsed by parliament three years before the drafting of the post-revolutionary constitution, and in El-Achmawi’s view it did not contradict the provisions of the later document.
“Having a privately owned artefact does not mean trading in it,” El-Achmawi pointed out, adding that trade in antiquities and cultural properties was prohibited by law in France, Greece, Italy and throughout Latin America. “Regretfully, these countries allow trading in our antiquities, however,” he added.
Article 8 of the law forbids trade in antiquities but allows their possession by private individuals on condition that they do not use them for their own personal benefit and do not damage or neglect them. An owner of an antiquity can bequeath it to his descendants, but he cannot sell it.
The law also prohibits the sale or rental of monuments, archaeological sites or museums to any person, institution or other country because they are state-owned properties. “We prohibit trading in antiquities because a decent country does not sell its heritage, history and civilisation,” El-Achmawi concluded.
“I am not against the modification of the antiquities law — on the contrary it could be changed — but before that the Shura Council should give better reasons for its modification,” he said, fearing that this could be another attempt like the one made in 2010 by Ahmed Ezz, former chairman of the planning and budget committee of the People’s Assembly and a member of the former ruling National Democratic Party, who had suggested that antiquities trafficking should be permitted in Egypt.
“Is history repeating itself?” El-Achmawi asked.
For his part, Ahmed Eissa, the minister of state for antiquities, said that no one from the culture, tourism and media committee of the Shura Council or the council itself had asked for, or sent a request for, the modification of the antiquities law. “If such a statement was made, it could be just in the opinion of the person making it,” he said.
Eissa added that an amendment to the law could not be done haphazardly, but would have to come about as a result of discussion among archaeologists, legal experts and civil society.
“Why ask for the amendment of the law now?” Eissa asked, adding that “now is not a good time for such a suggestion.” Tightening security at archaeological sites and museums was at the top of his list of priorities, he said, in order to protect the country’s heritage from looting and encroachment, as well as to encourage tourists to come to Egypt which in turn would restore Egypt’s tourism industry.
“The law is sufficient as it stands. If there are good suggestions for its modification, these would be welcome, but they are not necessary now,” Eissa said.
He said that Egypt would never rent out its heritage or institutions or allow them to be controlled by people other than Egyptians. “What has been reported about renting out monuments to Qatar or any other foreign country is untrue,” Eissa said, adding that “Qatar has become a kind of phobia for Egyptians.”