6 February 2011
Hand in hand with the demonstrations calling for change came an uprising of a totally different nature: one of crime. As the Interior Ministry security forces withdrew from Cairo on Thursday evening—they were back on Tuesday morning—a wave of crime swept the country. Apart from the huge losses in private businesses and property, the destruction to public property was appalling.
On Saturday evening, the talk show al-Ashira Masa’an (10 o’clock) on Dream 2 TV Channel was contacted by Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, general manager of the Delta antiquities sector. Dr Abdel-Maqsoud was calling to send out an SOS to the army, which was then on duty throughout Egypt, to guard Egypt’s legacy of Pharaonic antiquities. “Even as I speak now,” he said, “antiquity stores and museums all over Egypt are being plundered. This is an organised crime. In addition to the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, there have been thefts at museums in Saqqara, Qantara Sharq near the Suez Canal, Port Said, the region of Marea near Alexandria, and the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria.
“Antiquity storehouses in various sites have been attacked and robbed. These stores are defended by guardsmen armed with simply sticks, while their attackers are armed with firearms. I ask the armed forces to defend these storehouses; if these antiquities are smuggled outside the country, Egypt would be losing part of its history.”
Minister of antiquities
The same call for help was sent out a couple of days later by the then secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities Zahi Hawass. Incidentally, Hawass was named Minister of Antiquities—a new ministry in the new Cabinet—that same afternoon. In the meantime, satellite TV channels including the BBC, al-Mihwar, and al-Hurra, broadcast scenes of plundered rooms and galleries inside the Egyptian Museum. Some showcases were empty, and the floors were littered with the broken pieces of Pharaonic statues. Seeing these scenes was, to say the least, heart breaking.
I remember seeing the same room as I reported on the museum centennial in 2002; it held the Tut Ankh Amun’s treasures which had been transferred form the boy king’s tomb in the Valley of The Kings in Luxor’s West Bank.
National TV later announced that the robbers had been caught and the thefts recovered. Many viewers, however, found this difficult to believe.
Hawass said that the robbers used a saw to take out a rock-hewn panel from a Saqqara tomb, and had broken into the Old Kingdom Shawwaf Pyramid south of Saqqara. They also entered the storehouse in Qantara Sharq and made away with truckloads of antiquities. Ten boxes loaded with artefacts were stolen from Port Said museum. And in the Delta town of Tanta, contents from the 19th-century Mohamed Ali Sabeel—a resting place where passersby are offered water, a very welcome gift in hot countries such as Egypt—were also stolen. Hawass said he feared many of the stolen items would end up in the hands of smugglers and find their way outside Egypt.
It is an irony of fate that the meticulously worded law against trafficking in antiquities, passed just three months ago after wide and thorough discussions, could not prevent these crimes.
Lost papers and archives
Several Cairo buildings that house vital public administration services were set on fire.
Among these was the administrative prosecution offices compound, a six-storey building the interior of which was completely burnt. It was found that, prior to setting it on fire, the vandalisers had stolen hundreds of files that concerned cases under prosecution and thrown hundreds of others out of the windows and into the street.
The real estate registry on Galaa’ Street in Downtown Cairo, which housed archives for marriage and divorce documents real-estate registry, as well as personal official authorisation documents.
Also among the victims of arson was the famous 14-storey building of Mugammaa al-Tahrir (the Tahrir administrative complex) off Tahrir Square, the three upper floors of which were set ablaze.
Arkadia and Carrefour
Arkadia mall, on the Nile Corniche, was burnt to the ground. Scores of shops that sell garments, antiques, household utilities, design artefacts, jewellery, as well as a food court were looted and burned. In the absence of security men, the looters loaded the stolen goods onto waiting trucks and made away before setting the building on fire. They even took away the metal rods in the gate.
The same scenario took place at Carrefour hypermarket in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. Some young neighbours, however, managed to catch the thieves and hundreds of stolen goods were recovered.
One Carrefour executive who asked for his name to be withheld told Watani that the Carrefour market on the Cairo-Alexandria highway closed its doors for the first time since it was opened. “For the time being,” he said, “We’ve sustained sufficient damages.”
Prisoners set free
Police stations across Cairo were attacked, the policemen and officers assaulted, the police guns stolen, and the detainees set free. And in what appeared to be a highly organised move, prisons in various sites in Egypt were attacked, the officers and prison guards assaulted, the prison cells opened, and the prisoners let out.
One prisoner appeared on satellite TV recounting how his cell had been opened and he was ordered to leave. “I went home to visit my family,” he said, “but now I want to hand myself in. I don’t want to be caught breaking the law.”
Even the Children##s Cancer Hospital in Egypt (CCHE)—known as 57357 hospital—did not escape an attempted attack; supposedly to steal air conditioners and utilities. The attempt was aborted by the doctors, patients’ families, and neighbourhood residents.
The hospital includes 500 children cancer patients from far and near all over Egypt.