By Sophie Azeb
The entry on Egypt in satirical news agency The Onion’s atlas, Our Dumb World, reads: “Free Admission on Sundays. Located in the Smithsonian, the Louvre, the National Gallery in London, and countless other museums throughout the Western world, the nation of Egypt lies behind thick glass displays in climate-controlled rooms.” Its history? “Currently on loan to the British Museum.” No surprise then that a quick Google search for “Egypt looters” turns up 803 news articles, blog entries, and videos – all posted within an hour. Watching Al Jazeera on Saturday, I was struck by the lament uttered by an anchor at the news of looting. “Tragic,” she remarked as images of damaged artifacts from the Egyptian Museum were displayed onscreen. Her reaction is echoed by many reporting on Egypt in the media, ultimately at the cost of ignoring the real news in these tense hours: that Egyptians, inspired by years of brutality and violence, inspired by Tunisians, inspired by the rest of the world disregarding their needs, have begun and maintained a popular and leaderless revolutionary insurrection against a Western-backed, 30-year long violent dictatorship. They are dying for this.
But wait – back to King Tut.
Egyptians care more about their history and antiquities than the Western world gives us credit for. There is a reason that thousands of Egyptians created a human barrier around the Egyptian Museum in Cairo once “security forces” retreated. Our antiquities are our history too (Okay, Egyptologists?). We have a deep pride in our culture, and a deep love for our country. But Egyptians are not only joining together to protect museums and libraries. They are guarding neighborhoods, taking shifts to sleep between protests and prayers, distributing food, and directing traffic.
It is important to be concerned with the looting or potential looting of Egyptian antiquities. I would like to repeat, however, the assertion of Mona Eltahawy and the many Egyptians I’ve corresponded with over the past few days: I believe that these looters are working with Mubarak’s regime in an attempt to drive protestors to turn on each other or instigate a police attack on civilian protestors. I believe that Western media outlets are focusing on the looting in order to minimize the true significance of this mass movement (I’m looking at you, CNN). I would also like to emphasize that Egyptian antiquities, as The Onion sharply satirizes, have already been looted. In a former colony of Great Britain that is economically dependent on the United States and tourism, Mubarak’s dictatorship was no happy accident. The Orientalist rhetoric that has long facilitated the removal of Egyptian artifacts to more “capable” institutions goes hand in hand with upholding the Mubaraks of the world.
Egyptians will not stand down now. No matter what comes in the next few days or weeks, Egyptians have ensured their future will change. Let us imagine, build and protect a democratic Egypt first. Then we can work on protecting our antiquities.
Don’t worry. The museum will be open from Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
* Sophia Azeb is a graduate student and instructor in African & African American Studies at SUNY-Buffalo. You can follow her on Twitter.