Over the past year various committees in the State Council and the People's Assembly have been reviewing the new antiquities law, which has finally been approved and will be endorsed on Monday. Parliament also rejected every suggestion made by some MPs to allow licensed antiquities trafficking in Egypt.
"It really is a great success. I am very happy that this law has finally seen the light of day," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al-Ahram Weekly. He added that the last session of parliament had approved the law with speed and efficiency, and stressed that it was an important step for Egyptian heritage since it would provide better protection than the previous Law 117/1983 since the penalties it imposed for trafficking were too lenient. "We need stiffer penalties to stop further trafficking," Hosni said.
The new law prohibits all antiquities trading and cancels the 10 per cent of unearthed goods previously granted to the foreign excavation missions who discovered them. "In fact, when I took over Egypt's cultural portfolio in 1987 I made a decision to call a halt to this practice, but my decision had to be ratified since anyone could file a lawsuit on the grounds that it was permitted by the old law. Now the division of any discovered objects is prohibited by the new law, and no one can ever divide newly- discovered artefacts with Egypt," Hosni said.
Hosni squashed rumours that have been circulating in the Egyptian press to the effect that Ahmed Ezz, chairman of the Planning and Budget Committee of the People's Assembly and a member of the National Democratic Party, suggested that antiquities trafficking be permitted in Egypt. Hosni explained that there was a misunderstanding as Ezz has only submitted a comparative study between the antiquities laws of Turkey, Greece, France and Italy. He did not suggest the authorisation of antiquities trafficking as some has suggested. Hosni pointed out that Ezz had an opinion on the law like any other MP, and after much discussion in parliament Ezz was convinced by the points introduced by the Ministry of Culture and was the first to support the new law and the prohibition trafficking in antiquities.
Ashraf El-Ashmawi, the legal consultant of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), who had the lion's share of forming the articles of the new antiquities law, supported Hosni's statement. He told the Weekly that Ezz did not submit a draft law to parliament permitting antiquities trafficking in Egypt, he merely submitted a comparison of other national antiquities laws to the subsidiary committees and not to the general session of parliament. In his study, Ashmawi continued, Ezz presented the classification of antiquities in these countries as well as other articles in their laws. He added that Egypt's new draft antiquities law did not necessarily follow international practices.
El-Ashmawi said the ruckus created by the media revolved around the term "antiquities trafficking", which was jumped on by the press. He said Ezz's study did not only include the word "trafficking", but also several items concerning similar antiquities laws.
SCA Secretary-General Zahi Hawass agreed that Ezz submitted his study in good faith, and that after several discussions he was convinced about the correct path to follow and was among the foremost in supporting the new law.
El-Ashmawi said that the new antiquities law faced two main obstacles before it could gain parliamentary approval. The first concerned the form of the law, as MPs wanted to modify the existing Law 117/1983 instead of issuing a new law, as several articles were in common. They said reviewing these articles would be lost time. The modifications also had to be negotiated, and in the event only 30 or so articles were modified instead of the 39 submitted.
The second obstacle concerned the essence of the law and five of its articles, those concerning the definition of an antiquity; prohibiting antiquities trafficking; intellectual property rights; the possession of antiquities; and the penalties for the crime of antiquity trafficking.
As for the definition of an antiquity, some MPs wanted to widen the definition by classifying every artefact in Egypt according to its historical era. They justified their opinion to the identification of antiquities provided in laws in Europe and elsewhere. They classified antiquities into three categories: historical objects; items of national heritage; and cultural assets.
As a lawyer, El-Ashmawi sees the cornerstone of any law to be its definition. In the case of this antiquities law it is the definition of an antiquity. If he can correctly identify what is an antiquity, he can easily prove a crime, he says. If not, there might be several loopholes.
MPs are in agreement with the SCA's definition of an antiquity as laid out in the new law. An antiquity is every building or object that is a product of the Egyptian civilisation or any further civilisation. It is also a product of art, science or religion on Egyptian soil from the pre-historic era up to 100 years before present time. According to the new law an antiquity also covers any item with a historical, archaeological or artistic value that has contributed to the Egyptian civilisation or was created in Egypt for any other civilisation. It is also covers anything produced in Egypt or bearing any relation to Egypt's history. All human remains are considered as antiquities.
As for Article 8, which concerns the prohibition of trading in or possessing antiquities, El-Ashmawi said it took several discussion sessions with MPs in order to gain their approval of the ministry's submission.
Some of the objections concerned technical and very specific wording in the articles. As well as giving anyone in possession of an antiquity a two-year grace period to inform the SCA of their possession, allowing the trade of antiquities inside Egypt was another contention.
Hawass said this grace period was too long, and could convert Egypt into a vast excavation site as well as encouraging antiquities trading. El-Ashmawi said the amendment on possession requires Egyptians who have antiquities to report them to the SCA within six months. The sale of antiquities was still banned.
"Parliament agreed on Article 8 forbidding trade in antiquities but allowing possession of antiquities for some individuals, on condition that they did use them for benefit, and did no damage or neglect them," El-Ashmawi said. These may in future only be given as a gift with the SCA's authorisation. They may also be passed on as part of an inheritance.
Sanctions were placed on using photographs of archaeological sites or artefacts for commercial purposes without the permission of the SCA. Professional photography inside museums and archaeological sites is now completely prohibited unless permission has been given. Using photographs for educational purposes, by governmental authorities, for tourist attraction and for personal use is free of charge; although the intellectual property on its own logos and trademarks remain with the authority.
The SCA will be the only authority allowed to use museum logos, and others will have to pay royalties. Twelve logos have already been registered. These include the Giza and Saqqara pyramids; the Egyptian, Coptic and Islamic museums in Cairo; the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria; the Nubia Museum in Aswan, and Luxor and Abu Simbel temples.
In collaboration with the Ministry of Industry, El-Ashmawi said, the SCA was studying the idea of establishing an economic body to ensure the implementation of the law.
"We must exploit our archaeological assets properly in order to earn more money from providing efficient services instead of letting others do so," Hawass said. He told the story of an Italian group that paid $60,000 to photograph all the objects exhibited within the Egyptian Museum. The Italians quickly recouped their investment -- and made an additional $50,000 in profit -- by selling the right to re-use the photographs. "The Chinese are making lots of money selling replicas of our antiquities," Hawass commented.
So what would be the fate of the pyramid-shaped Luxor casino in Las Vegas and other ancient Egyptian-themed parks and malls around the world? According to Hawass, they are resorts that look nothing like Egyptian heritage and are "replicas of the imagination".
Funds generated by the new law will go towards the preservation of historic sites. "We want to protect Egyptian antiquities." Hawass says. "We want to protect our values. This is the most important thing."
El-Ashmawi acknowledges the difficulties of a global copyright witch-hunt. "If you have a small shop and your trade is very limited, I will not take money from you," he said. "But if you are a big company, like some of these Chinese companies that make a lot of money from making replicas of antiquities, according to the law, I can take the fees."
As for penalties, according to El-Ashmawi, all these have been doubled or more. A smuggler who was sentenced to 15 years and fined LE50,000 will now be sentenced to l5 years' imprisonment and fined up to LE100,000. Anyone who steals, hides, or collects authentic artefacts, or owns them without permission, will be imprisoned for 10 years and fined from LE50,000 to LE250,000 instead of three years' hard labour and a smaller fine. According to the new law, stealing or helping to rob a part of a genuine piece or any deliberate intent to disfigure it will land a sentence of 15 years and a fine of from LE50,000 to LE100,000.
"The new law does not omit penalties for those who write their names or fix advertising billboards on monument walls," El-Ashmawi said. He said such actions were considered a violation of Egyptian heritage, and the penalty would range from six to 12 months or a fine of LE150,000.
The new law allows clemency for anyone who confesses to or divulges information about an antiquities crime in condition that their confession leads to the arrest of partners in the theft or smuggling. The SCA will assign experts to check the authenticity of any confiscated object in an attempt to guarantee an honest and accurate decision.
El-Ashmawi is happy that almost a year after it was promulgated the law has at last been approved. He describes it as a success for Egypt's heritage, and says the 27 amendments he helped draft will protect that heritage and fill the loopholes in the old Law 117/1983.
4-10 February 2010