The burning of the Egyptian Scientific Institute in the midst of the chaos in Cairo is a cultural disaster on a par with the worst acts of destruction of heritage in recent years, arguably worse than the losses to the Iraq Museum (since stolen artifacts can still be recovered, whereas the burned original manuscripts are gone forever). Whether the fire was started by a Molotov cocktail or, as some have asserted, was set by the soldiers inside the building, is not yet clear, and may never become clear. What is clear, however, is that the burning of this library reflects yet another abject failure of heritage policy to protect heritage when it is most at risk.
It is not as if this eventuality was unpredictable. After the Cairo Museum was robbed in the midst of similar chaos last January, the Egyptian government, and the military leaders who run the country, should have been able to work with international heritage protection agencies and organizations such as UNESCO, the Blue Shield,and others -- including the many, many Egyptian citizens who care deeply about their heritage (and showed it by joining hands to cordon off the Cairo Museum in January) -- to put in place contingency plans to keep cultural institutions secure during periods of unrest. Last but not least, the US government, which subsidizes Egypt's military to the tune of billions, ought to have demanded the Egyptians secure their cultural institutions and sites as a condition of aid. But of course, since we have no carabinieri-like forces ourselves to do this sort of thing, and little interest ourselves in securing cultural sites apart from major tourist attractions such as the Baghdad Museum or Babylon, chances are that no one from the Pentagon was even thinking about the problem, even after the looting of the Cairo Museum.
That was in January. Did the fate of the Cairo Museum provide a wakeup call that site security needed to be an urgent policy priority? It was not until mid-October, after months of bureaucratic chaos, that the government announced it had set up a committee to develop security plans, so the answer is most likely no. Nor did any citizens' groups evolve out of the noble ad hoc handholding at the museum.
The result? If this CNN report is accurate, the military did not set up a perimeter around the building. Instead, a small number of soldiers stood on the building's roof and goaded the protestors:
The library was a scene of intense confrontation Saturday.
A dozen men dressed in military uniform were positioned on the library roof and threw cement blocks and rocks on the protesters and sprayed them with water hoses to push them away from the building.
But protesters hurled back rocks as well as Molotov cocktails. Then a massive explosion erupted, apparently originating from inside the building, and black smoke billowed.
Firefighters were busy putting out another fire in a nearby building.
Protesters were bleeding from rocks thrown at them.
What is to be done going forward, beyond the important immediate task of salvaging the remnants of the library?
First, the courage, energy, and passion that Egyptian citizens have shown in responding to the disasters at the museum and now at the library needs to be channeled into civic organizations that can be mobilized proactively next time around.
Second, UNESCO needs to either shift resources from conservation and development or supplement them with additional funding focused on securing cultural sites during periods of political unrest.
Third, the United States needs to exercise some leadership and influence, where it has leverage or ties with militaries in countries undergoing transitions or crises, to induce them to do the right thing.
Fourth, NGOs and foundations that support cultural heritage conservation need to begin thinking about how they can work directly with nascent heritage site protection NGOs in-country.