Egypt is almost synonymous with antiquity in the public mind. From the pyramids at Giza to the grand temples of Aswan and Luxor, Egypt’s millennia-old ruins are some of the world’s most iconic and spectacular. The product of a civilization that began around 3000 BC and dominated the Nile Valley for the next 3,000 years, ancient Egypt’s physical remnants have been well-preserved thanks to the dry,
desert climate. The area was also heavily influenced by Greek and Roman culture, and after about 700 AD by Islamic conquest. A long period as part of the Ottoman Empire and later as a British colony helped shape the political and economic foundations of modern Egypt.
Looting has become Egyptian archaeology’s most pressing problem since the upheaval of the Arab Spring in January 2011, which weakened the ability of authorities to monitor and protect the country’s physical heritage. Even before the pro-democracy uprising was over, thieves broke into the Egyptian Museum in the heart of Cairo and stole and damaged priceless artifacts. Everything from small ceramics to statuary and mummies is potentially valuable on the international market.
In the years since, organized, targeted looting has devastated Egyptian sites and museums. In August 2013 following the outer of then-President Mohamed Morsi, the Mallawi museum in Minya was robbed of 1040 of the 1089 artifacts on display while the building was set ablaze by local extremists. Gangs have broken into storerooms safeguarding relics at dig sites, including decades-long missions run by the Met in New York and the German Archaeological Institute. And at dig sites around Egypt, gangs of looters have been operating with near-impunity, reportedly bringing in bulldozers and other heavy equipment to facilitate the illegal excavation and theft of artifacts and statuary.
Egypt’s dramatic monuments are also threatened by more long-term problems, including development. The Giza pyramids are now on the edge of Cairo, and urban sprawl is encroaching rapidly. Once houses and roads are built, even illegally, removing them is difficult.
Pollution and poor water management are another pressing issue. Large-scale irrigation of crops like sugar cane and cotton are raising the water table underneath sensitive sites like Luxor and the tombs at the Valley of the Kings. The groundwater, which contains high levels of salt, is eating away at the soft sandstone buildings. Previous governments refused to discourage the water-intensive agriculture, and there’s little prospect change will happen until Egypt’s situation stabilizes1.
Egypt has been an authoritarian state almost continuously since its independence from Britain in 1953. Under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s economy improved but freedom of expression and political organization were repressed. Terror attacks throughout the 1990s claimed the lives of more than 1,200 people, including dozens of foreign tourists.
In January 2011, weeks of massive popular protests resulted in the overthrow of Mubarak and a constitutional referendum. In November 2011, parliamentary elections were held; in June 2012 Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, proved to be a polarizing figure politically and religiously, as Egypt’s Christian minority has also been targeted by opponents of the regime. In July 2013 another wave of protests resulted in a military takeover and Morsi’s arrest. Today, Egypt is slowly regaining stability under its current President, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, who was elected to power in 2014. However, there remain significant tensions between the country’s devout Muslims, represented in part by the Muslim Brotherhood – and more extremist Islamic groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Sinai – and supporters of the government.
Egypt’s economy has been in free fall ever since the Arab Spring. Economic growth under Mubarak was unevenly distributed, a factor in the public unhappiness that led to the 2011 protests. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Egypt’s government dramatically increased public spending and rolled back Mubarak’s economic reforms. Ongoing egotiations over further loans from the International Monetary Fund have been unsuccessful, putting the short-term future of Egypt’s economy at further risk. Egypt exports oil, cotton, and textiles.
Tourism once accounted for 10 percent of the Egyptian economy. But the sector has been especially hard-hit, particularly heritage tourism in areas where the security situation is poor. After a record year in 2010, with $13 billion in expenditures by foreign tourists, 2011 showed a decline to $9.3 billion. After a slight recovery in 2012, the upheaval and military takeover of 2013 has driven tourists away once again.
Before the 2011 Arab Spring, Egypt’s antiquities and museums were managed by the Supreme Council of Antiquities under the Ministry of Culture. But Mubarak’s resulting cabinet shuffle renamed the SCA the Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs and brought it out from under the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry of Antiquities has seen several ministerial changes since Zahi Hawass’s exit in 2011. The
current Minister of Antiquities is Mamdouh el Damaty, appointed by President General el Sisi.
Egypt prohibits trade in antiquities, considering them to be the property of the Egyptian state. Violations are punishable by fines and jail time. Egypt has worked with international authorities to put stolen items on a “red list” and restrict imports of Egyptian antiquities.
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