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In Egypt, History for the People

An article by Ursula Lindsey published in the Chronicle of Higher Education on June 12, 2012

Khaled Fahmy, a historian at the American U. in Cairo, hopes Egypt’s jealously guarded National Archives can become “a research center that generates new questions.” Photo: Thomas Hartwell for The Chronicle

Group hopes to encourage inquiry with an open archive of the revolution

THE EGYPTIANS who poured into the streets of their cities early this year were well aware that they were making history. “In 10 years, when I see my children studying Egyptian history, I want to say: ‘I was there,'” Ahmad, a young demonstrator on his way into Tahrir Square, told me on February 4, a week before President Hosni Mubarak was driven from office.

Egypt is still living through its revolution, and still wondering what the outcome will be. What’s certain is that the popular insurrection that toppled Mr. Mubarak will be remembered as a pivotal moment of the 21st century, one with many puzzles for historians to solve.

How were the protests planned? What led to the disintegration of President Mubarak’s seemingly unshakeable security apparatus? How did the Egyptian military reach the decision not to fire on protesters? To allow Egyptians to dig for the answers to those questions, a group of historians, university professors, and activists is collaborating with Egypt’s National Archives to document the uprising for posterity.

Khaled Fahmy, chair of the American University in Cairo’s history department, heads the group, called the Committee to Document the 25th of January Revolution. By making all the materials available online, he and his collaborators also hope to offer a new model of an official historical archive, one that emphasizes public access rather than government control.

Currently, says Mr. Fahmy, “archives do not belong to the people. They belong to the state.” Not just in Egypt but across the Arab world, national archives and official documents are jealously guarded, and scholars face endless security clearances and bureaucratic hassles to get access to them. Nonspecialists have virtually no right to use them.

Even when researchers do gain admittance to Egypt’s National Archives, they may discover that the documents they are looking for-especially if they are 20th-century or newer ones–aren’t there. The country’s modern rulers have created a near-total information vacuum about their decision-making.

By law, documents are supposed to be stored in the relevant ministries for 15 years, then held at the National Archives for another 15 years before being made public. In practice, however, only the most mundane administrative papers are ever deposited in the archives. Official documents dealing with wars or policy decisions of any import are simply never made available. “At this point,” says Mr. Fahmy, “we don’t even know if they exist.”

Egyptians are rarely if ever afforded a glimpse into the deliberations of their presidents, ministers, and military commanders. And that is the case across the autocratic regimes of the Arab world. The Arab-Israeli wars, for example, have been documented almost entirely on the basis of Israeli archives.

That’s one reason the committee will “try to gather as much as possible for future generations,” says Mr. Fahmy, “to make available to them what hasn’t been available to us.”

The archive will include oral histories; testimonies of activists and planners; newspapers and documentation of their editorial process; reports from human-rights groups and religious groups; and, of course, photographs, jokes, slogans, and songs from the protests.

The archive could also include intelligence documents. During the revolution, Egypt’s State Security Investigations (a dreaded domestic intelligence service that has been accused of routinely spying on, kidnapping, and torturing citizens) began destroying files at its offices across the country. After Mr. Mubarak stepped down, protesters broke into some intelligence offices and salvaged piles of documents, which were handed over to the army and the public prosecutor. Today the intelligence service is being restructured, and the interim government has said the agency’s archives, going back to 1910, could be made accessible.

The challenge in assembling all this, says Mr. Fahmy, “isn’t money or manpower, it’s technical know-how.” His team is figuring out how to gather materials in a digital format that will be long-lasting, how to find a safe and stable storage system, and how to make the archive open to all and easy to search.

The committee is training volunteers to record and catalog oral testimonies, and plans to start conducting interviews across the country this month. The goal is to gather high-quality digital recordings that will be tagged with a list of searchable terms.

And the entire archive will be available online. “I’ve insisted,” says Mr. Fahmy, that using the archive “will not require going to the National Archives or getting a security clearance. It has to be open and accessible from home.”

ABUNDANT MATERIAL

The Egyptian revolution was documented in real time by television crews. Twitter feeds, and the cellphone cameras of millions of Egyptians, producing an enormous reservoir of audio-visual material.

That’s one reason Mr. Fahmy and his colleagues are proceeding deliberately. “I’m being cautious,” says the historian. “Tomorrow I can put an ad in the paper and I’ll be flooded with material.”

Many other efforts to document the revolution are already under way. The Web site Tahrir Documents collects underground newspapers, signs, and fliers that have been distributed in the famous square. The American University in Cairo has asked students, faculty, and employees to share stories and photographs and donate memorabilia as part of a documentation project it’s calling University on the Square. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina and Egypt’s Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage are also collecting materials and documents related to the revolution. Every day brings the announcement of new books, photography exhibitions, and symposia on the subject.

What distinguishes the National Archives project is its scope and its determination to be as accessible as possible.

Mr. Fahmy, who earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the American University in Cairo, returned to his alma mater in 2010, leaving a position at New York University. He has extensive experience doing archival research in Egypt.

He first set foot in Egypt’s National Archives in 1989, while a doctoral student at the University of Oxford. It took him six months to obtain the necessary security clearance. “There was no orientation, no proper catalogs, no people equipped to deal with researchers,” he remembers. “I was very intimidated.”

Eventually, he says, he found his “treasure trove”: 63 boxes of documents from the time of Muhammad Ali, Egypt’s early-19th-century ruler, documenting a military campaign in Syria. The documents informed Mr. Fahmy’s book All the Pasha’s Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army and the Making of Modern Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1997) as well as his continuing interest in the history of law and medicine. Tellingly, he notes, this archive from nearly two centuries ago–including letters between Muhammad Ali and his son and military commander, Ibrahim–has no modern equivalent.

THE PRODUCTION OF KNOWLEDGE

Today, says Mr. Fahmy, in part thanks to a proactive director, the National Archives are much improved, with a better reading room, extended hours, and an electronic database created in partnership with IBM.

But “the mentality has not changed,” he says. “The concept of the production of knowledge is not yet clear to people working in the archives. The mentality is geared not to the production of knowledge but to the preservation, the recirculation of knowledge.”

That is the attitude toward information that a police state generally produces in its public institutions, Mr. Fahmy suggests. But it’s also part of a misunderstanding of what constitutes historical knowledge, which is seen as static and finite.

“People think of production of knowledge when it comes to physics,” he says. “But people are not aware that historical knowledge can be produced–that what we need is new arguments, new ideas, new hypotheses, and to push the frontier of historic knowledge.”

Egypt’s academic historians tend to keep their distance from recent history–leaving it to journalists and political scientists–for fear of appearing unobjective or getting drawn into perilous political debates.

Universities, scholars, and the general public all have a role to play in “turning the National Archives from a reservoir to a research center that generates new questions,” says Mr. Fahmy.

“The time is ripe for this,” he argues. But “it will still be a serious battle.”

“National security can only be protected by more openness, more transparency,” he says. “But when people get anxious, they are for more security, not less.”

With the country under military rule, unsure about its political future, and suffering from a security vacuum and sectarian tensions, there is much to be anxious about. It is highly unlikely that the army will become more open about its actions and decisions, and it remains to be seen how forthcoming the new government will be.

Still, says Mr. Fahmy, who is also establishing a new degree in archival research at his university, “I couldn’t have picked a better time to come back. I’m very hopeful and very excited by things happening at AUC and in the archives and in the country at large. Things are still precarious, but this is just an amazing opportunity.”

Khaled Fahmy, a historian at the American U. in Cairo, hopes Egypt’s jealously guarded National Archives can become “a research center that generates new questions.”

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