Sunday, October 14, 2012

Who Are the Looters? An Example from El Hibeh

Egyptologist Carol Redmount, who has led efforts to draw attention to looting at the site of El Hibeh in Egypt, reports on the facebook site "Save El Hibeh Egypt" that 

apparently two or three months ago several MSA inspectors went to visit El Hibeh and were threatened by Abu Kotia, the 'criminal" who has been overseeing the looting of Hibeh. He told them if they returned to Hibeh he would kill them. Then, about two weeks ago, Abu Kotia was shot (by whom I'm not sure) and wound up in the local hospital, where he died. I'm still trying to get further details. I very much hope that this means the looting at Hibeh has or will stop, but who knows at this point. If and when I get more details I will post them. I have heard rumors of items from Hibeh being for sale in Cairo and Luxor, but I haven't been able to confirm any of them. 
The lack of investigative journalistic coverage of this extremely scary story is almost as depressing as what the story itself tells us about who the looters are (hint: not just otherwise nice people driven to dig by poverty who could easily be convinced to go legal if only they were given a stake in sustainable tourism). As is the case in every other country where there is a lot of money to be made by digging and trafficking antiquities, mafiosi will bring violence to bear if and when needed to keep their business going. 

What that means is that securing sites from looters is not a task to be left to antiquities inspectors alone -- it requires real police with adequate authority and the training, weapons, transport, surveillance and communications gear to keep the bad guys away or arrest them. As I have said before on many occasions, however, most countries -- and especially Egypt given its drastic loss of tourism revenues during the past year -- do not have the resources to pay for better policing. The monies needed could, on the other hand, be generated by a "sin" or "pollution" style tax imposed on licit purchases of high-priced Egyptian antiquities in the US, Great, Britain, and other countries. 

Someday, I believe some such tax will be recognized by dealers, collectors, and museum directors as their best hope to transform relations between themselves and countries like Egypt that rightly see the illicit trade and the violence that accompanies it as the fault of those who collect -- even with a "clean hands" approach, since the enormous sums paid for licit pieces signal criminals that similar but unprovenanced objects must be worth enough to justify looting.

In the meantime, what can concerned Egyptians, Egyptologists, and heritage protection advocates do to help stop the bad guys? Investigative journalism is clearly too dangerous right now, or there would have been reporting done on what is clearly a highly colorful story. We need to do our own reporting, insofar as that is possible without putting lives in danger. Is there any way to empower Egyptians who live near the sites to anonymously crowdsource monitor (i.e., get Google or some other tech leader to design and then provide Egyptologists in Egypt with lots of cellphones designed to enable uploading of photos, phones that could be disseminated to local Egyptian citizens)?

No comments: