Sunday, March 06, 2011

Hawass: No Tourist Police, No Army on Sites

In a very illuminating interview, Zahi Hawass at long last makes clear how little power he wielded, despite his high public profile as head of an agency employing 30,000 responsible for one of Egypt's most important sources of revenue. The military, which had been protecting sites until 10 days ago, has withdrawn, but the tourist police have not filled the security gap, and Hawass now explains that the site guards under his control are unarmed and therefore incapable of protecting sites from gangs of looters:
people come with guns. They stand in front of my security people, who run away, because they are not armed. In the past, Police refused to give them weapons.
Assuming things are as bad as he claims (and there is no reason to think otherwise, since many of the sad facts he adduces here have been independently confirmed already by archaeologists), Hawass is to be commended for resigning under these conditions, and for using his resignation to call attention to the failure of the transitional military government to continue military security on sites. 

What can be done now by those outside Egypt who wish to help that country secure its heritage during this unstable phase in the democratic revolution? The answer can't just be to issue public statements deploring what is happening and calling on the Egyptian authorities to protect sites, as the AIA/AAMD press release does. While necessary, that is unlikely to have much effect on its own. And while these organizations rightly call on their own members to provide expertise supporting Egyptian efforts to identify and reclaim missing objects, curators and archaeologists are not trained in site security. One thing that the AAMD's member museums could do, however, would be to pull together resources -- money and their own best security people -- to at the very least try to hire locals to secure the storehouses and sites connected to archaeological digs that they have been jointly engaged in with the Egyptians. This need not, and probably cannot, involve buying AK-47s for site guards, as was done by some institutions and individuals for a few dig sites in Iraq; but many other steps short of that are doable.

But only the Egyptian military can really handle the security demands. We know that the Egyptian military has longstanding and strong professional connections with the US military, and that archaeologists have participated in joint military trainings in Egypt such as the Bright Star exercise. We also know that the Smithsonian has been developing new and potentially extremely valuable interagency links to the US military, largely as a result of the initiative spearheaded by the Smithsonian's Richard Kurin to bring disaster relief assistance for Haiti's cultural sector after the earthquake. It is these networks of relationships that the archaeological and museum community needs to somehow tap into. 

That means, for starters, a focus on:

  1. identifying and work contacts with the Egyptian military to urge them to deploy troops to secure sites.
  2. identifying and working contacts within the US military to urge them to contact their Egyptian counterparts to express concern about the security vacuum on archaeological sites.
  3. offering material support, not just in the form of archaeological expertise to put humpty dumpty together again, but also in ways that would make it easier for the Egyptians to secure and guard their sites. (Just to be clear: there is almost nothing the US military could do directly to help -- we have no deployable equivalent to the Italian carabinieri, and even if we did have such capability the Egyptian military would never countenance American troops being in a position where they might have to fire on Egyptian citizens. The support here would have to be in the form of financial and logistical support for whatever the Egyptian military says it needs.)

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