Monday, April 29, 2013

Governing without a state: The stakes for archaeological heritage

The withering-away of the state in Egypt has meant the emergence of do-it-yourself civic action, as this NY Times story makes clear, with consequences both exhilarating and frightening. Reclaiming public space on behalf of a community can mean real progress when the state was hoarding resources that the public left to its own devices could have better employed. But the dark side of this is the cannibalizing of nonrenewable or potentially renewable resources by short-term community interests (or worse, by private interests as when gangs rule). Encroachment on empty land that had been hoarded by the government is one thing; encroachment and artifact-farming on land that the government had declared offlimits in order to protect the nation's and the world's heritage is another.

In this moment, the fate of Egypt's cultural heritage depends on whether, left to their own devices, Egyptians will be able to form civil society groups that can advocate for protecting archaeological sites, demanding action by the state, and where necessary taking direct action themselves to do so.  We saw that spirit on display in the spontaneous joining of hands to cordon off the Cairo Museum when looters attacked it, and we are now seeing the emergence of citizens' groups, with participation not just by archaeologists but by locals, focusing on this. That is a highly promising development. It would be wonderful if such efforts could be supported by NGOs and individuals overseas (not to mention governments). 

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