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Who is afraid of the National Archives?

Published in Ahram Online on June 16, 2013

Intellectuals and the new director want the National Archives to be run by the army. Their reasons may differ, but that institution does not need tighter security, but rather to open its doors to the public

The current dynamics at the Egyptian National Archives are truly peculiar.A few days after the minister of culture sacked a number of high-ranking ministry officials, and after he had involuntarily uttered telling words in his meeting with the staff of the Cairo Opera House, in which he said, “I was given instructions that must be followed,” the new head of the Central Administration of the National Archives and the National Library also fired a number of senior officials in the National Archives.

I understand that the minister must be committed to the policies set down by the government he is affiliated with, and be aligned with his colleagues in the Cabinet, and to obey the orders of the prime minister and the president. Yet, were the instructions that the minister referred to delivered by the president or the prime minister? Or were they, rather, issued by the Freedom and Justice Party and/or the office of the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood? And what were these instructions, and what do they intend to achieve?

I also understand that in a democracy Cabinet reshuffles usually follow parliamentary elections. Typically, reshuffles are not restricted to the ministerial level but reach down to senior echelons of the government bureaucracy in order to give the incoming minister the flexibility to appoint senior aides that he deems essential to implement his/her new policies.

Yet this time the rapid sacking orders reached the fourth administrative level within the National Archives, raising serious doubts about the intention of these drastic measures. When asked about the motives behind these rushed procedures, the new head of the National Archives and Library responded by saying that he was operating under a “tough schedule” and that he “is not an investigative authority,” and that his actions were meant to “eliminate doubt and to bring about stability.”

And when he was asked about the motive behind not informing the General Prosecution or the Central Auditing Office, or asking them to investigate suspected officials before sacking them, he said that he built his decision on rumours that have been circulating at the National Archives, and that his intention was to “steer clear of suspicions”; that he was authorised to do so by the minister, who had granted him the powers of a minister.

What is intriguing here is the wanton disdain for the law and proper procedures that would ensure the stability of state institutions. So in the name of “cleansing,” the new director of the National Archives and Library undermines an institution that can be considered one of the pillars of the culture ministry, or in fact, of the entire state. And that he should claim that he does so “to bring about stability” — well, that is contradiction in its finest form.

What makes one even more suspicious is the new director’s admission of having a Muslim Brotherhood background, and that he embraces the doctrine of Hassan El-Banna specifically. This in itself is not a defect or a shortcoming, for freedom of belief is sacrosanct, and as mentioned above, it is only logical that the new director should share the same political and ideological convictions of the party that ended up winning the elections and forming the government.

The Brotherhood ideology that the new head of the National Library and Archives embraces is not the issue here, nor is it the reason for suspicion. The problem lies, rather, in the ambiguous relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and this government, a matter that has prompted many to wonder who really runs this country: the office of the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, the presidency, or the Freedom and Justice Party?

The real issue here is the suspicion that the Muslim Brotherhood aims to lay their hands on the holdings of the National Archives, specifically those documents that relate to the history of the Brotherhood, and particularly those kept within the files of the political police of the 1930s and 1940s, a period that witnessed many public crimes that the Brotherhood has repeatedly been accused of committing.

These legitimate fears led some intellectuals who are currently holding their sit-in at the Ministry of Culture to issue a statement calling on the army to intervene and to appoint an administrative council to run the National Archives, in order to forestall any attempt at stealing or concealing documents.

This strange development whereby intellectuals call on the army to interfere in a cultural matter, witnessed an even more bizarre twist when the new director of the National Archives and Library effectively endorsed the protestors’ view and accepted their argument that the answer lay in handing over the National Archives to the army and tightening already tight security measures.

This is a catastrophic turn of events. As I have always argued, the problem with the National Archives is not lax security, but an excess of security. It is draconian security measures that have effectively killed the Egyptian National Archives, an archival depository that supposedly contains millions of documents, but which is frequented by no more than a handful of visitors daily.

The best way to protect the holdings of the National Archives from theft or negligence is to grant access to this rich and unrivaled collection. It is by allowing citizens to have access to the sources of their history that one can protect this national treasure.

Solving the problem of the National Archives does not lie in tightening the grip of security but rather in opening the doors of the institution to the public, researchers and non-researchers alike. The answer to the endemic woes of the National Archives lies in doing away with the paranoid security mentality that has been imposed on our cultural institutions, a mentality that has neither enhanced culture nor upheld national security.

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