For Sale or Lease: Three Large Pyramids, Used.

Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood is conservative in the business-friendly, free-market kind of way that the American Republican party is. So when a mysterious “intellectual” floated a plan to lease out the country’s architectural heritage to a Gulf oil sheikhdom-probably Qatar-a plan which was taken up and studied by several government ministries, the surprise is that so many Egyptians were shocked. A neoliberal proposal that must have warmed a few hearts at the International Monetary Fund.

Are we destined to one day rent out or sell off Egypt’s thousands of years of cultural heritage to buy bread or gas? This question, which is not new, is back in the spotlight.

Some days ago, an independent daily published an investigation about a Gulf Arab country’s attempt to rent a number of Egyptian historical monuments. The newspaper’s investigation turned up a number of official documents in support of the idea.

It also published a letter from an intellectual, Abdallah Mahfouz, addressed to the ministry of Finance. In his letter, Mahfouz advised the Ministry to put important archaeological sites, including the Giza pyramids, the Sphinx, the Abu Simbel temple at Aswan, and the temples at Luxor on the rental market.

Mahfouz even lays out a suggested rental period: 3 to 5 years, and details the suggested procedures for holding an auction for the rights [to the various sites]. Mahfouz asserts that “the profits would be sufficient to close the budget deficit.” According to Mahfouz, profits could reach as much as $200 billion.

When the newspaper’s investigation did not trigger any immediate denials [from the government], the controversy erupted. Important personalities expressed their shock. After days of silence, the Cabinet, the Minister of Antiquities and the Minister of Tourism issued a statement denying any intention to rent out historical sites. But in the meantime, Mahfouz’s letter was officially forwarded from Ayman Gohar, chief of staff of the Ministry of Finance, to the Ministry of Antiquities. A copy of the letter, with the official stamp of the Ministry of Finance, was published in the press.

From that point, what had been a rumor became a documented reality, which of course inflamed the debate even further. Those who had not believed the story at all were forced to accept that this was a real, concrete proposal.

Outrage followed: slogans like “We draw the line at Egyptian monuments!” Egyptian archaeologists organized to denounce both the proposal and its implicit endorsement by the chief of staff at the Ministry of Finance.

“Are Egyptian statues and historical sites nothing but rocks scattered in the desert?” asked Samir Mohamed, head of a foreign archaeological team at the Saqqara site. “Of course these people are ignorant. These monuments reveal our long and varied history. These dynasties impacted the whole world. These works inspired the whole world, and inspire it still! The chief of staff made a huge mistake suggesting this idea, and starting a debate like this.”

Another archaeologist said that Gohar is as much at fault as the mysterious Abdallah Mahfouz. “The most astonishing aspect is that nobody knows anything about the person who first floated this idea. Who is he? And why did the Ministry of Finance pass around his proposal without any kind of feasibility study?”

Novelist Mohamad Al-Amin writes that mortgaging the country like this is a criminal proposition. “They talk about renting out the Sphinx and the Pyramids as if they were talking about selling off the furniture in their own houses for food.”

On the social networking sites, anger gave way to jokes: “Welcome to the Doha Pyramids”, or “Statue of Ramses II to be replaced with that of Hamad Bin Khalifa, Sheikh of Qatar.”

In spite of an economic crisis which has hit the antiquities and tourism sector particularly hard, Egypt’s Pharonic, Coptic, Greco-Roman and Islamic monuments remain the only source of income for many thousands of workers.

Supreme Council of Antiquities head Adel Abdel-Sattar acknowledged that renting out antiquities sites had been studied. “The ministry of finance asked the tourism and antiquities ministry to look into it and come up with a decision,” he said.

Antiquities Minister Mohamad Ibrahim and Supreme Council of Antiquities administrators met on Feb. 21 to resolve the situation. “There was no official denial because we were actually waiting for a final report on the proposal,” Ibrahim said, adding that “The final answer is no. And no Gulf country was discussed.”

However, Mohamad Al-Beyali, a director in the antiquities ministry, said that the only country that could have made such a proposal is Qatar, and that Qatar would indeed have been capable of coming up with the $200 billion over 5 years.

He also said that Gulf Arab countries regularly seek to borrow Egyptian antiquities for display, as do other countries.

“But there is a big difference between museum exhibits outside of Egypt, and renting out our monuments,” says Mokhtar Al-Kassabani, an Islamic antiquities specialist and former advisor to the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Abdel Halim Nourreddine, president of the Union of Egyptian Archaeologists, echoes this point of view, saying that the idea of renting out archaeological sites is ridiculous. “The country that made this proposal is crazy,” he says. “This is not even on the table.”

Though numerous experts say that with the Ministry of Antiquities’ firm ‘no,’ the proposal is dead, others suggest that that the idea may well return in a new guise.

The letter may well have been a trial balloon to test public opinion on the matter. But the response seems to be unanimous: there can be no trifling with Egypt’s cultural heritage.

Nasma Reda