Egypt has begun a bid to protect its antiquities from theft amid allegations that tens of thousands of priceless ones have disappeared.
The Egyptian parliament is debating legislation that would increase penalties — possibly to life in prison — for those convicted of illegally excavating, stealing, damaging or smuggling ancient artefacts.
“Toughening penalties in cases of antiquity theft is necessary if we want to protect our heritage,” said Nader Mustafa, a member of Egypt’s Culture, Media and Antiquities parliamentary committee, which is debating the legislation. “We cannot leave our antiquities to be easy prey for thieves like this.”
If enacted, the artefacts bill would replace a law that allows individuals to maintain possession of antiquities they obtained through inheritance.
Egyptian law states that anyone found guilty of smuggling artefacts out of the country could be sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined 1 million Egyptian pounds ($56,600). The maximum penalty for stealing an artefact, including the illegal removal of newly unearthed antiquities, is ten years in prison.
Critics calling for harsher sentences say the profit that can be made from stealing and smuggling antiquities far outweighs the punishment.
Antiquity theft has been on the rise in Egypt, with security at Egyptian museum warehouses said to be inadequate. Last August, a senior official at the Antiquities Ministry estimated that 32,600 artefacts had been stolen from ministry warehouses nationwide.
Ayman Ashmawy, who heads the Ancient Egyptian Antiquities Section at the ministry, said most of the artefacts were stolen during the chaotic period following the 2011 revolution.
There are 72 antiquities warehouses in Egypt, all of which are owned and supervised by the Ministry of Antiquities. Thirty-five of the warehouses are part of or adjacent to museums.
However, there are questions about warehouse security, including issues involving record-keeping systems.
“You cannot protect the antiquities without introducing new security systems to the warehouses,” said Mohammed Hamza, a former dean of the College of Antiquities at Cairo University. “We have a huge number of antiquities at these warehouses and they need to be protected.”
The warehouses contain tens of thousands of artefacts, some of which have yet to be officially registered in ministry records. This means that many antiquities could have been stolen without authorities being aware of the theft.
Egyptian antiquities officials expressed frustration and alarm as they see historic national artefacts being sold at international auction houses, such as when the bedroom of Egypt’s King Farouk was put for sale at a US auction house in January.
In late 2016, antiquities officials learned about the sale of the statue of Sekhemka at a London auction house when Egyptians living in the British capital started a campaign to prevent the sale of the statue.
Last August, a street cleaner raided an antiquities warehouse in the southern Cairo district of Maadi and placed 200 small relics in a burlap sack before attempting to leave the building. He was arrested by security guards.
The new legislation seeks to ensure that antiquities stealing and smuggling ends by ensuring that punishment serves as an adequate deterrent. Apart from imprisonment, the bill raises fines in cases of conviction of antiquity smuggling to 10 million Egyptian pounds ($566,000), up from 100,000 pounds ($5,660).
It would punish people who move antiquities from one place to another without permission from the authorities with up to seven years in prison. Those who excavate antiquities without licence would be sentenced to seven years in prison.
Alaa al-Shahat, head of the central administration department for Cairo and Giza Antiquities, described the bill as a “good step” towards protecting the antiquities and scaring thieves away. “You cannot prevent the smuggling of the antiquities or excavation by thieves without toughening penalties,” he said.
There is universal approval of the bill inside the Culture, Media and Antiquities parliamentary committee, Mustafa said.
If the bill passes committee, it would be referred to the general parliamentary session for voting. Even if the legislation is enacted, Mustafa said, its effectiveness would depend on Egypt’s security apparatus enforcing it.
“Law enforcement is what matters at the end but the presence of the law is always a first step on the road to change,” Mustafa said. “After approving the bill, the parliament will keep an eye on its enforcement to ensure that our antiquities are kept out of the hands of thieves.”
Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.