Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Weak security plagues Egypt's archaeological sites -- but no one asks where the money to fix the problem could come from

An interesting article from Khalid Hassan in Egypt Pulse shows that the economic crisis in Egypt, especially acute in the tourism sector, combined with the government's prioritizing of anti-terror (and, one should add, suppression of dissent), is leaving Egypt's site security in tatters, underfunded and outgunned by looting gangs.
The security system within the Ministry of Antiquities is suffering major problems because of the security sector’s neglect in training the ministry’s security guards. The security forces in Egypt are generally unaware of the importance of Egypt’s cultural and civilizational heritage, because of the low level of education within the security institution. Meanwhile, only a limited budget is allocated to the guards in charge of the archaeological sites’ security, and there is not enough funding to train, educate and arm them. 
Even World Heritage-designated sites are being attacked:
The Dahshur site includes the Red Pyramid, Egypt’s first fully constructed pyramid, and the Bent Pyramid. The site was added to UNESCO's World Heritage list in 2009. Yet looting there is organized and persistent.
Wahiba Saleh, a senior inspector at the Dahshur site, told Al-Monitor that security staff there are only equipped with 9 mm pistols and often confront thugs carrying automatic rifles or machine guns.
“The Dahshur site extends over 20 kilometers [12.5 miles] and there are only 10 guards to secure it, which means that each is required to guard 2 kilometers [1.2 miles]. How could it be possible?” she asked.
Saleh said guards at the site are paid a monthly salary of no more than 400 Egyptian pounds ($52), while they are required to protect priceless antiquities. She demanded that the ministry raise their salaries, increase their number to no less than 40 people to secure the site, train them and arm them to confront saboteurs and outlaws.

What is needed is clear: more money. How much more? For Dahshur, without a raise or upgrades to automatic weapons, the amount is $52 x 30 x12 =  $18720 per year. Tack on, say, an AK-47 at $400 each (with a 4 year amortization= $100 per year per rifle x 40 = $4000) and $200 per year for training and educating per guard (=$8000), and you get something like $32,000 additional to protect that site. Double the salaries and the price jumps to about $50K.

$50,000 is not that much money. But that's just one site. There are 12,000 or so site guards in Egypt. Let's assume we double their salaries and double the number, giving half of them automatic weapons. How much would the budget be? 24,000 x 52 x2 x 12 (= $29,952,000) + $400 x 12,000 (=$4,800,000) + $200 x 12,000(=$2.4 million). Total: about $37 million per year. If we quadruple the number of guards as suggested by the inspector quoted above, but for the whole country, the total would be $67 million per year, compared with $22 million now spent.

That's real money. A rounding error in the US budget, a small but real cost in Egypt's $60 billion deficit-plagued budget. On the other hand, given the presumably devastating impact of bad publicity from looting (not to mention attacks on tourists), investing more in site guards -- and perhaps shifting some jobs to site guard positions within the 30,000-strong antiquities ministry (at least, that was the number mentioned under Hawass) might be worth it to bring the tourists back.

But there really isn't any money for raising salaries or increasing numbers. As always, the key problem is FINANCING site protection (and other archaeological policing).

Here's one idea for raising that $67 million: Egypt could start loaning out antiquities in exchange for a fee or contribution. To take the most crude example of how this might work, the antiquities ministry could select 6,700 antiquities from the millions now sitting in museum storerooms, antiquities that 6,700 collectors -- both institutional (for instance, a school district or corporation or mosque) and individual -- would be willing to borrow for a year at $10,000 per artifact.

Obviously the design of such a program would have to be very carefully thought through, and there is a real question of whether there is enough demand from collectors who could meet the criteria for being eligible for such a loan. Estimating demand based on auction sales is next to useless, not only because so much of the market is private and illicit, but also because there are likely many many would-be collectors who avoid Egyptian antiquities for all the right reasons. Such a program would also entail some risk, even with responsible collectors, that the objects might be broken (though the loss this would entail might be mitigated if the objects were some of the untold thousands of near-identical duplicates held by museums. Archaeologists are likely to be adamantly opposed.

Still, it is worth considering as one of the possible ways out of the disastrous financial difficulties Egypt's heritage protectors are suffering from and likely to continue suffering from for quite a long time to come.

No comments: