The systematic looting of archeological sites and artifacts has reached crisis proportions in Egypt over the last three years. Thursday afternoon the Middle East Institute hosted Deborah Lehr, founder of the International Coalition for the Protection of Egyptian Antiquities, for a discussion about the sharp rise of cultural racketeering in Egypt. Kate Seelye, senior vice president of the Middle East Institute, moderated.
The world’s most precious sites are being senselessly looted, Lehr said. Egypt is not a unique case. Looting is a crime of global proportions. According to the FBI, art and cultural property crime is one of the top five international crimes. Unlike other illicit crimes, however, there hasn’t been a global effort to stop it. In Egypt, cultural theft has reached crisis proportions in the midst of its rocky transition to democracy. The country’s first priorities need to be its economy and electing a new president, but the ongoing art theft is tragic. Moreover, it puts the country’s economic recovery at risk.
Looting is particularly hard to stop in difficult economic times. In Egypt every archeological site has been subjected to some form of looting, which has increased since 2011 by 500-1000% percent. Some looters use major construction equipment to dig beneath the sand, destroying the historical context as they look for treasure. Conducted by criminal organizations, the looting is organized and systematic. The same groups that traffic guns, humans, and drugs deal also in art. Art theft is a very profitable trade.
At the local level, Egyptian youth have been campaigning using social media to protect sites and raise awareness of looting. In 2011, Egyptian protesters created a human shield around the Egyptian Museum. Nevertheless, looters have been successful in stealing valuable archeological items. Last year the famous Mallawi Museum was ransacked by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. They stole the majority of the museum artifacts and burned the remaining ones. Rising instability and insecurity in Egypt have caused tourism revenues to plummet. Last year was the worst in modern history. Tourism revenue is down when Egypt needs it most to protect archeological sites and artifacts.
Using satellite imagery to track looting, archeologists guess that sales in local Egyptian markets for stolen artifacts are estimated at $3 billion since the revolution began. Many think the number is closer to $10 billion. Behind guns and drugs, art theft is the most profitable crime in the black market. Many items are smuggled through the Sinai and diplomatic pouches. Switzerland and Israel are consolidation centers for distribution of stolen artifacts to the US, Japan, and other parts of the Middle East. Israel has acquired hundreds of stolen items, but has not yet returned them to Egypt.
Locals do not really benefit much from the international sale. Most of the financial gain goes to the middlemen in these transactions. The US government should take a leadership role to help save Egypt’s cultural heritage. Major institutions and organizations such as the UN need to take a comprehensive approach to address this crisis. Domestic governments need to increase security at archeological sites and other governments need to be ready to lend support as needed. Cultural racketeering may seem like an archeological crisis, but economics is at the root of the problem.