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Culture minister initiates debate on new archives law

In light of efforts to document the events of the January 25 Revolution, culture minister, Emad Abou-Ghazi has announced the formation of a committee to reexamine the archive law's draft once more

Sayed Mahmoud, Tuesday 5 Jul 2011
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The task of accurately documenting the events of the January 25 Revolution, with all its complications, has contributed to the debate over the draft of a new archives law which is up for fresh discussions as announced by the cabinet last month and confirmed by Minister of Culture Emad Abou-Ghazi.

The announcement sparked debate among interested parties including Khaled Fahmy, professor and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo and the committee for documenting the revolution. Fahmy explained to Ahram Online that Abou-Ghazi has asked Egypt’s national library and archives to lead meetings between historians and public figures to discuss the proposed law, promising to consider all comments in the final draft in order to suit the changes brought about by the revolution. Abou-Ghazi, himself a specialist in the science of archiving, formally announced the formation of a new committee to review the draft last week.

The law in question was prepared in 2005 by a wide committee that included a number of notable specialists, including Emad Abou-Ghazi, the late historians Raouf Abbas and Younan Labib Rezk, Abdel Azim Ramdan in addition to the previous head of the National Archives, Mohamed Lotfy Gouda. Legal counsellor Hossam Lotfy and current head of the National Archives Abdel-Wahed El-Nabawy were also on board.

The law received praise at the time for its precise definitions of “archive” and “document” as well as for setting guidelines for the authority of the National Archives on public documents. The measure also simplified regulation for documents in private and government institutions and requested their submission to the archives. Additionally, the law extended National Archive authority to documents owned by private organisations or individuals, offering suitable compensation. The classification period (period during which the document is considered secret and with limited access) for any archive was set at 50 years.

Regarding the definitions, the law clearly stated that an "archive document” is any piece of material produced or received by public legal entities or public personnel, whether it's written, painted or recorded. Secrecy classification became a responsibility of the issuing entity.

Still, the law seems to require additional work. Some are pushing for the classification period to be reduced to 30 years. Others are requesting independence for the National Archives. That is, the organisation would fall under the direct authority of the president or the Cabinet and not under the authority of the ministry of culture. However, Abou-Ghazi’s view point is that the classification period is not the responsibility of the National Archives themselves as is the case with any archive in the world. With regards to the degree of secrecy and the possibility of national security risks, perhaps stemming from military or war documents, only the originating body should hold responsibility. The archives responsibility, according to the culture ministers, should now be to come up with a law that respects archiving; the classification periods could be looked to in the future.

Saber Arab, head of the Book Organisation, says the proposed amendments are very much in line with new era sentiments.

While Abou-Ghazi perceived the utmost importance to defining an “archive” by law – given past incidents of poor definition resulting in the loss of important state documents - Fahmy argues that the law should focus more on the freedom of access. This criticism caused Abou-Ghazi to call for a discussion with historians.

The ministry of defence has never submitted archives related to the wars of 1967 or 1973 despite passing the 30 year classification time, owing to the previous law’s enforcement limitations. The documents are still kept in the military possessions and are unavailable to Egypt’s military historians.

“This led to missing the Egyptian story about the two wars, leading researchers to seek foreign and Israeli archives – clearly breeching the national security of Egypt,” Fahmy explains.

The law in its current form grants independence to the National Archives and sets the conditions governing its work and access. In the past, security concerns have required researchers to wait out long clearance periods, often ending in rejection for reasons having nothing to do with their academic work.

On the practical side, Abou-Ghazi finds that “The proposed law doesn’t represent a problem to historians except in regards to articles that indicate exceptions given to specific organisations under the old law, and which prevented any of these organisations from submitting their archives.” The historians are hopeful that the current interior minister, Mansour El-Eissawy, will fulfil his promise from last March to send national security records to the national archives and open them for researchers.

On another front, organisations involved in human rights linked the discussion to the right to information and access. Saber Arab sees this as a positive perception. “Accessing archives is a right pertaining to citizenship, and should not be limited by any security measure,” he says. Fahmy added that the law must insure the rights of any citizen to access information from official sources.  

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