Historian Fahmy argues for easing access to Egyptian National Archives

Mary Mourad, Monday 24 Jun 2013

Egyptian history professor argues for easier access to national archives, saying through them he's even discovered that in the past, another legal system paralleled sharia

Khaled Fahmy
Khaled Fahmy at the Egyptian National Archives (Photo: Ayman Hafez)

The "Archives belong to the People" discussion opened with remarks by the head of the history department at the American University in Cairo, Khaled Fahmy, who stressed that it is people who make history and, therefore, it belongs to them.

Egypt's revolution raises questions that require knowledge of history to understand, thus the discussion about documents and archives is of essence to this revolution, the professor said at the discussion hosted by the new ENA director, whose name is also, coincidentally, Khaled Fahmy.

Professor Fahmy said of the Egypt's National Archives: "I consider this place my home, where I learned and was served by its employees since 1989 when I started by PhD, mesmerised by its fascinating content and the information it houses about our history."

The "Archives belong to the People" discussion on Sunday attended by history and library science professors and students, including writer and author Ahdaf Soueif and a number of AUC professors as well as National Archives employees.

Professor Fahmy placed books produced by scholars based on material in the ENA on the podium and stressed that there is much more that can still be produced with the gold of mine of archives.

ENA Director Fahmy announced, on his part, that the conference is the beginning of a cultural programme that will include speakers, such as Youssef Zeidan, author and professor of archives.

Security stifling knowledge
Comparing the British equivalent of the national archives in London to Egypt's archives, Professor Fahmy says he was received in the British archives and in less than 10 minutes given an entry pass for three years, in contrast, he was shocked by the security mentality that limited who and how long any citizen could even enter the building.

In Egypt, a citizen is required to bring a document from their employer that proves why they need access to the ENA, attach the research plan and list the archives and documents to be researched. This rigorous security clearance is what determines whether the petitioner gains access to ENA archives.

"The ENA considers itself a store of state history and not a source of knowledge and it is truly devastating that our students learn about their history from foreign documents - including Israeli documents - while keeping our own documents securely hidden," Fahmy raised the concern: "Isn't this a waste of public money when only a handful of researchers are permitted entry into the ENA?"

The way to protect national security is to produce knowledge, Fahmy repeatedly emphasised, pointing to the books on Egyptian history.

What Islamic identity means from Egyptian history
On concerns over the Brotherhodisation of the ENA following the appointment of the new director, who announced himself publicly as a Muslim Brotherhood member, Professor Fahmy was not concerned anyone would hide or destroy documents, confident that the employees are more than careful about the archives.

"Yet the true question is about identity," Fahmy announced, fearing that the "process of Westernisation of identity"- as the Brotherhood calls the role of intellectuals over the years - will simply ignore and hide much truth about Egyptian identities.

Although the Brotherhood claims that sharia (Islamic law) was used before Western jurisprudence and, therefore, Egypt should go back sharia instead of these systems, Fahmy says that investigations show how average Egyptians took this change, with some 400 years of sharia judiciary documents in the ENA.

Fahmy discovered that a parallel kadaa seyasi system was invented, where seyasi literally means 'political,' but in this case means 'judiciary for managing public affairs.'

As an example, Fahmy distributed a copy of an original document that told the story of how the family of a lady who was tortured to death in prison in 1880s delayed the quick, Islamic burial to have a doctor dissect the body to prove that she died of torture. It couldn't be ignored, the similarities with Khaled Said, the young Egyptian man who was tortured to death allegedly by police late in 2010 and whose picture of his disfigured face helped spark Egypt's 2011 revolution.

"What this points to is how sharia systems evolved, mixing slowly with 'seyasi' and that is how people are being 'managed.' This allowed for the broadening of concepts," Fahmy explained, since in order to prove the crime, sharia required very strict proof and that left many unpunished, for example only some 2 percent of theft cases could qualify to be judged by sharia law during the 19th century, with the remainder reverting to this new hybrid system.

"The seyasi system wasn't brought from the West and forced on people - as some would like to claim - but rather it was used to enforce people's rights. So, it was brought through need and not forced from above," Fahmy concluded his controversial statement.

A public debate should be opened on the definition of identity and sharia, asserts Fahmy, to be based on the documents kept and stored in Egypt's own ENA - but that would require that the regulations issued by the recently-appointed culture minister be reversed.

Fahmy then took the opportunity to announce his full support for intellectuals and others who are protesting against Culture Minister Abdel-Aziz, indicating that what the minister had announced as "measures dictated from above" require clarity on who dictated them.

Fahmy also announced his full support for Abdel-Wahed, Sabry El-Daly and Nevine, ENA employees who were sacked on accusations of corruption.

Although Fahmy didn't make an issue out of the differences in opinion with the ENA director, he did state that the fact that opinions and differences aren't debatable is problematic.

"You have not yourselves setup these security measures but only inherited them, and the fact that you're still keeping them indicates that you are not coming with a true revolutionary change, but only to sustain the Brotherhood's rule... National security's best interest is in sharing knowledge and allowing people to know and go by their own will to the ballot box.

"If you can make this change I'd be your biggest supporter," Fahmy concluded.

In defence of the new measures

ENA Director Fahmy commented that he'd join his voice to Professor Fahmy's regarding enabling access to ENA, but claims his security measures are not additional but rather he's simply organising the current rules. He defended the dismissal of the employees, referring to the deterioration of the archive storage conditions as well as informing the audience that there were, indeed, plans to digitise ENA documents, but it is now facing legal investigation for corruption.

Later on, one of the employees blew the whistle, claiming that El-Daly (one of the sacked employees) was involved in the theft of documents and that there's corruption that must be investigated. Therefore, the employees support the new minister because he is uncovering these corruptions. Another employee highlighted how the now-dismissed former ENA leader, Abdel-Wahed, had let go of the best talent and never promoted or fairly rewarded the hard-working employees.

A highly-tense debate ensued on how much security is needed to avoid the loss of documents while digitisation is still underway versus opening up the ENA, as well as a strong defence for the minister's and new ENA director's new measures.


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