Egyptian Archaeologists’ Syndicate demands blacklisting of all foreign archaeologists

Here, I want to briefly and amateurishly review the crisis of looting and destruction in Egypt, the Egyptian Archaeologists’ Syndicate demand for the blacklisting of all foreign archaeologists, and the possible contribution of unpaid labour to the political campaign.

First of all, I can only reiterate that people should not follow me to find out about the cultural heritage situation in Egypt. I haven’t even done Robert Fisk journalism in Egypt (had a poolside holiday in Sharm el-Sheikh). They should follow Egyptian archaeologists Monica Hanna (@monznomad) and Nora Shalaby (@norashalaby), and British Egyptologist Margaret Maitland (@eloquentpeasant). As always, British archaeologist (@PortantIssues) Paul Barford’s blog carries a lot of news, too (which is especially valuable because of the unreliability of access to the Egyptian newspaper/website sources).

If people want to follow the Egyptian situation in general, Max Fisher (@Max_Fisher) has compiled a list of key sources, and people I trust have repeatedly shared observations from all of the sources (and indeed shared the list itself). To make it clear before I begin, I’m against anyone’s undemocratic behaviour (and most vehemently against violence). I couldn’t put it better than Dalia Ezzat.

Exploitation of insecurity

… in general

In the insecure post-revolutionary environment, there has been a massive expansion in antiquities looting, which is ‘no longer [primarily] a crime motivated by poverty, it’s naked greed and it involves educated people’ and armed robbers. They have targeted Islamic buildings as well as jahili (non-Islamic) sites, so it is not (necessarily) ideological. In addition, wealthy landowners have established ‘armed gang[s]’ to steal land and destroy historic monuments in order to enable development.

Despite parallel traditions of peaceful coexistence and even conviviality, and mutual protection in their campaign(s) for democracy, post-revolutionary Egypt has seen gross violence against its Christian citizens, including Muslim Brotherhood (MB) propaganda-fueled, Islamist-led, military-allowed attacks and state propaganda-fueled, military-led, Islamist-backed assaults on crowds.

Predictably but nonetheless unhelpfully, there have also been unreliable claims of looting and destruction (and unreliable accusations of unreliable claims). That’s one of the many reasons (and, for readers, the most important reason), to follow archaeologists who risk their lives in Egypt instead of me.

… right now

Malawi National Museum has been almost completely looted and otherwise destroyed. Partly for ideological reasons, partly for opportunistic reasons, and partly because Coptic Pope Tawadros II supported the coup, Coptic and Melkite Christians have been attacked, and many of their homes, schools, businesses and churches have been attacked, burned and/or destroyed. It appears that supporters of the deposed Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, looted the museum; but it is possible that at least some of the seemingly Islamist acts of looting of cultural property and destruction of religious heritage are actually military false flag attacks to discredit the anti-coup protests and excuse the brutal crackdown.

The professional blacklisting of perceived political enemies

The Egyptian Archaeologists’ Syndicate (EAS) was the first (and may still be the only) legally-recognised union for archaeologists in Egypt. It was founded after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and, ironically (considering its current campaign), its first head was an Egyptologist at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Prof. Fayza Haikal.

Just hours after concerted (state-level) international disapproval of the military coup and the slaughter of civilians, the EAS called on the Ministry of State of Antiquities (MSA) to ‘cut all ties with foreign – and especially American – archaeological missions’, to ‘take immediate, thorough steps to cut all ties, even including prohibiting researchers and students to enter Egyptian museums and archaeological sites‘, ‘because of their countr[ies’] support of “terrorism [MB activism]”‘ and ‘until those foreign cultural and archaeological institutes in Egypt pronounce their official rejection of their countries’ policy of intervention in Egypt’s internal affairs’.

This politicisation of scientific endeavour, archaeologists’ forced choice between sectarian political performance (and thus self-identification as targets for sectarian aggression) and the endangerment of their own livelihoods, would be worrying enough as it is.

We are not quite reassured [by] our heritage being in the hands of our enemies….

That is quite terrifying rhetoric, wherein even those archaeologists who do publicly profess the virtues of military coups and massacres in the streets are still merely tolerated, potential or subdued enemies. ‘Stupidity‘, some have judged, which will suppress research ‘for months if not years just due to the expressed hostility‘ (which will thereby leave archaeological sites even more vulnerable to plunder than they were before).

An anonymous member of the Supreme Council of Antiquities stated that ‘the demand is disappointing and symbolically shocking’, but lacks any official power. Still, if it were implemented, ‘it would mark the first time since the 1956 Suez Canal crisis that non-state foreign intellectuals have been ejected from the country, and would mark a grave devolution in Egypt’s intellectual life’. Yet the Syndicate went further:

If the MSA will not accept and follow-through with our demands, archaeologists will implement the prohibition [ourselves] and will work towards cutting any cooperation with them.

Barford pondered, if ‘Egyptian archaeologists from the Syndicate will be “implementing the prohibition themselves”, what are they going to do, beat up any foreign archaeologists they see wandering around Luxor?’ It sounds like they would (or will) conduct a campaign of professional civil disobedience, something like a grassroots wildcat blacklisting.

Others have deemed it ‘at best exaggerated and at worst suspicious given the both the history of the Syndicate…, and its specious claim to speak on behalf of “Egyptian archaeologists.”‘ It is unclear why a long-professionally-organised and recently-officially-recognised union would not be able to claim to speak on behalf of its members. Still, the act is (or may be) suspicious.

The threat of blacklisting of non-compliant foreign archaeologists may indicate that the Syndicate has been convinced or compelled to act in concert with the army or coup regime. It may simply demonstrate that the Syndicate is a secular nationalist professional community (which would not be surprising). It may reveal the cynical (but nonetheless dangerous) exploitation of nationalist rhetoric to advance local archaeologists’ (justified) economic demands; so, it may be a product of the problem of free archaeology in Egypt.

Unpaid labour and persistent unemployment in Egyptian archaeology

Alongside all of the other movements, there have been archaeological campaigns for ‘real jobs [and] better pay‘ (or any jobs at all). Immediately after Mubarak was overthrown, a ‘mob of unemployed archaeologists‘ stormed the Ministry of Antiquities and demanded work. The then Minister of Antiquities (the “Mubarak of Antiquities“), anti-revolutionary Zahi Hawass, alleged that the mob ‘had been organised by the Muslim Brotherhood’. In fact, the protest comprised people like Ahmad, who ‘had come many times to the ministry to find work but nepotism and corruption meant it was always someone else who was hired’.

As then union leader Prof. Haikal observed,

Unemployment… is high among graduates of the Faculty of Archaeology because there are minimal work opportunities outside of the ministry. At the same time, the ministry cannot employ all archaeologists the same year they graduate. So, whereas their demands are justified, archaeologists should be patient.

Under her, the Syndicate managed to preserve the (new, revolutionary) independent Ministry of Antiquities, and thus to keep the income from cultural heritage tourism (rather than give 10% to the Ministry of Culture). Under her successor, Salah El-Hadi, 50,000 cultural heritage workers signed a petition for their own autonomy. However, the insecurity has reduced tourism income so much that the ministry was only able to ‘hir[e] thousands of unemployed archaeology graduates‘ by ‘divert[ing] reconstruction money’ (though it may simply be an example of continued, though now Muslim Brotherhood-backed, ‘cronyism‘).

The campaign to prohibit foreign archaeologists may still be stupid, offensive and dangerous; and it may still make sites more vulnerable to cultural property crime; but it would be immediately understandable as a product of economic desperation.


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