Egyptologists speak out

Don't believe the scare stories: ordinary Egyptians have protected precious antiquities.

[This is a guest post by Fayza Haikal, Stephen Quirke, Okasha El Daly, William Carruthers, Marwa Helmy, Nikolaos Laziridis and Karen Exell, who egyptologists based in the UK and Egypt itself.]

Revolutions call for radical change - are Western museums and archaeologists ready for this? Or might they, like their governments, prefer business as usual?

The racism and intolerance in reactions abroad to the safeguarding of antiquities in the 25 January revolution are provocative and insulting. In the fight for freedom and for rights taken for granted in some countries, at least 350 young Egyptians gave their lives, and hundreds more have been injured in ways that will mark them for life. In this fight, people from all sectors of society also physically risked their lives to protect museums and sites from attack. Yet, panic reports on looting in western media and archaeology blogs were followed by widespread surprise that the scale had been exaggerated, and that people fought back - a story that never received the full press attention it deserved. In Cairo people defended the museums, in Alexandria students ringed the Library and in Upper Egypt villagers protected Karnak temple. From our own friends and colleagues we have heard extraordinary tales of courage - of inspectors trying to see off armed attackers at stores, of curators walking miles across the city, through streets reverberating with gunfire, to join museum guards. When the police disappeared from the streets, ordinary Egyptians defended themselves and the archaeology.

This defence seems to have caused surprise abroad, but the fact that even well-disposed foreigners have been taken aback is a great insult. The Egyptian reply? "This is the Egypt that you do not know and do not see, and do not want to see - and you will continue repeating your error."
People often say that Egyptian heritage is world heritage, and this may be true, but it is also particularly Egyptian heritage: we did not see the world represented by non-Egyptian archaeologists or bodies of tourists in those cordons. Instead, the pictures of human cordons defending museums demonstrate how, against the expectations of foreigners, it means more to Egyptians. Unlike the most famous museums in the west, the museums of Egypt house the national heritage of the country itself, the pride of a nation that sees itself as teacher of the world - and will be seen as such again, following the 25 January revolution.

Here are some radical proposals:

- Besides returning regime assets to Egypt, the outside world should also end its involvement in illegal antiquities smuggling - the largest global trafficking crisis, alongside drugs and arms. Egypt can secure its heritage in its own way within its own borders, and has all the experts it needs in conservation and historical knowledge. Outside pressure needs to end. Western governments should end practices that promote looting: they should close free-zone airport warehouses stockpiled with stolen antiquities, and tmake it illegal to sell or buy undocumented antiquities. Antiquities are looted around the world only where there is a market for them, where they can be smuggled out and sold. The international community has to play a role in removing this appalling pressure on Egypt's national heritage.

- Requests from Egypt for the return of antiquities should be honoured. Even before 25 January, several museums had returned items, or started talks about loans of masterpieces for exhibitions - something unheard of in previous decades. The revolution offers the chance to transform the relations between countries on these issues. Any request should be welcomed from a land that has risked so much to save its museums. Western organisations can also invite Egyptian participation in discussions over the continual movements of Egyptian antiquities, in such initiatives as the UK "Effective Collections" scheme.

- A third radical move would be a shift towards an Egyptian archaeology, where "Egyptian" means both by Egyptians and in Egypt. The main initiative in this area will come from the revolutionary demand for education funding to reinvigorate universities and scientific research. In archaeology, international missions already contribute to survey and excavation training for Egyptians. Yet, at present, Egypt hosts dozens of foreign archaeological missions from countries that do not host, and would never contemplate hosting, an Egyptian mission of any kind. The late Ottoman Period "concession" is still the technical term for foreign work on an Egyptian site. This imbalance is produced in part by the technological revolution in western archaeology. Besides a massive carbon footprint, this has given world archaeology a rationale for neo-colonial exclusion: minimal participation of Egyptian scholars in non-Egyptian teams has widened the gap between local and foreign. Building on the best existing initiatives, a new Egypt may bring more collaborative work, where foreign missions no longer talk of "their" sites, and where, instead, foreign archaeology in Egypt will mean co-directed teams comprised of equal numbers of Egyptians and foreigners. In the future, Egyptian archaeology will be as Egyptian as English archaeology is English.

Dedicated to the martyrs of the 25 January revolution.


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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood