December 9, 2021
The London International Media Hub
Moderator: Thank you and good afternoon from the U.S. State Department’s London Media Hub. I’d like to welcome all participants to today’s telephonic press briefing. Today we are very pleased to be joined by two State Department officials to discuss the signing of the U.S.-Egyptian MOU on cultural heritage. Today’s call is on background and the speakers will be designated as State Department Official One and State Department Official Two.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks by the officials and then we will turn to your questions. We’ll do our best to get to as many as possible in the time that we have today, which is approximately 30 minutes. As a reminder, today’s call is on background attributable to State Department officials.
And with that, I’ll turn it over to Official One for opening remarks. Please go ahead.
State Department Official One: Thank you, and thank you for this opportunity to speak with you today. Cultural property, archaeological artifacts, and cultural objects worldwide are vulnerable to looting, theft, and trafficking. And this is particularly true in Egypt, which has a rich heritage and invaluable archaeological and cultural patrimony that spans civilizations. The U.S. Government is a partner of the Government of Egypt to protect and preserve these irreplaceable, invaluable cultural resources. We work on a lot of different fronts to safeguard Egypt’s cultural patrimony. In fact, advancing cooperation between the United States and Egypt on preserving and protecting their cultural heritage is a priority for the U.S. Government and a key component of our bilateral relationship.
So to that end, the MOU that was signed on November 30th to facilitate the continued and direct cooperation with the Government of Egypt allows us to work together to identify, interdict, and return trafficked cultural objects and archaeological artifacts from Egypt. I think one of the primary objectives of the MOU is to prevent illicit trafficking of these irreplaceable cultural artifacts and objects, so there’s a law enforcement component to how we fulfill part of this agreement.
But it’s important to note that the MOU is also a codification of a broader relationship between the United States and Egypt. Through this MOU, both the United States and Egypt have facilitated public programs to raise awareness of the dangers of the illicit trade of cultural property, strengthen regional cooperation and communication flows. The MOUs help facilitate technical assistance from the United States to Egypt in the field of cultural property protection. It’s allowed for enhanced information-sharing about thefts and trafficking of their cultural property. And it’s helped facilitate temporary external exhibitions – that is, museum loans – to the United States from Egypt so American audiences and visitors from around the world can also enjoy the cultural heritage from Egypt and all of its historic civilizations.
With that, my colleague will share more on the technical aspects of the MOU and I look forward to your questions. Thank you.
State Department Official Two: Hello, everyone. Echoing my colleague, it’s a pleasure to be here and to answer any questions you have about this very important memorandum of understanding with the Government of Egypt.
I work in the Cultural Heritage Center in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs here in Washington, and our center leads U.S. cultural heritage diplomacy around the world. Our work and our efforts help partners protect and preserve culture worldwide, and among many of our activities it includes management of the interagency Cultural Antiquities Task Force, which has a primary focus to disrupt cultural property trafficking around the world, doing that through a one-government approach that coordinates law enforcement activities across the federal government as well as supporting local governments, museums, and cultural heritage managers and preservationists around the world to protect and preserve their heritage in place.
Another activity of the center and another hat that I wear is as an analyst in the Cultural Heritage Center for the Middle East and North Africa region, and I help administer cultural property agreements in this region. These agreements are tools for preventing illicit activity as well as promoting exchange, as my colleague just explained. So my role this morning is to answer any technical questions you may have about the MOU itself, how these MOUs work in general, and happy to take any questions along those lines.
Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
All right, our first question comes from Ray Hanania at Arab News. Please go ahead.
Question: Hi, good morning and thank you for being available. I just had some basic questions. One, how big is the problem of theft and looting? I mean, do we have an idea of how to describe how extensive it has been? And secondly, is there an area where these looted artifacts are predominantly sold or is it throughout the world? So just to get a little background on how extensive this is, and what type of artifacts are we talking about? Thank you.
State Department Official Two: For the looting and theft and trafficking of Egyptian cultural property, it continues to be an issue. We certainly saw a large uptick in 2011 when there were many disruptions in the country. Thankfully, we see kind of lower level than in 2011, but the problem remains. Therefore, there was a need to continue this MOU and protections for Egypt’s cultural heritage.
In terms of trafficking routes, they remain the same ones. We see a lot of movement through Europe and then on to the United States. The United States remains the largest art market in general in the world, so we continue to be a destination for this type of material. And we also see trafficking through the Gulf states’ areas, which is also a concern. So we look forward to working with our partners in the Gulf on this issue as well as, of course, with our Egyptian counterparts in law enforcement.
Moderator: Great. Our next question goes to Melissa Gronlund of The National. Please go ahead.
Question: Oh, hi. Thank you very much for this. I was just wondering if you could talk about the differences between this MOU and the 2016 MOU, and were there parts of the 2016 MOU that weren’t working adequately, and what were those and how have you changed them?
State Department Official Two: Yes, thank you for that question. We are very excited to see not only a continuation of the protections that were put in place five years ago, but this new MOU, newly signed, expands the protections for certain categories, additional categories of cultural objects. So that includes archaeological material that’s dating from the prehistoric period as well as dating from 1517 to 1750 A.D. There’s also an expansion to include certain ethnological material, which was not a category included before. And just to say that these categories – archaeological, ethnological – they are the categories reflective of U.S. law that administers these cultural property agreements, so that’s why we – that’s why we use those terms.
So to summarize, now the MOU and the accompanying import restrictions that go along with the MOU now include archaeological material from Egypt ranging in date from approximately 300,000 B.C. to 1750, and certainly ethnological material from Egypt ranging in date from 1517 to 1914.
State Department Official One: And if I could just echo that excitement that we’ve been able to have this new signing of an MOU to be able to ensure that the protection for Egyptian cultural heritage remained in place without interruption. I also wanted to note that this signing is the first of such MOUs where there is the initial MOU in 2016 and then a subsequent MOU by the United States with any country in the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt was the first in the region to have this type of bilateral MOU on cultural property protection with the United States. So this is a fairly momentous moment, and we’re looking forward to working with the Government of Egypt to be able to expand those categories of protection, as my colleague mentioned, and then also work together on an action plan to find ways to be able to continue our cooperation together.
Moderator: We have one submitted – pre-submitted question here from Amir Nabil of Middle East News Agency in Washington. He asks, “What are the practical steps the U.S. is planning to take with other countries in order to protect Egyptian heritage, particularly on the legal side of such cases?”
State Department Official Two: That’s a really great question, and it points out the fact that the United States can’t do this alone. Because trafficking is a transnational and international issue, we rely on working with our partners, especially in in-transit and other market countries, in order to strengthen laws so that we can be more effective in disrupting the illicit trafficking of cultural property from Egypt and all around the world. So part of the MOU is to work with Egypt and other regional partners, again, to strengthen; if there are laws that need to be strengthened in certain ways, we certainly offer assistance in terms of expertise and offering advice on ways that legal provisions can be strengthened and encouraging those updates, those revisions to be made – again, so that it is not just the United States acting alone but working in concert and in partnership with other countries where trafficking is an issue.
State Department Official One: I think that’s absolutely right. I think that strong regional cooperation and international cooperation complements the bilateral MOU that we have, because it’s only through that collaborative partnership or partnerships that we can achieve that common goal of cultural heritage preservation.
I also wanted to note that the – that ecosystem of partners and entities and organizations with which we collaborate on cultural property protection is not just government-to-government. My colleague mentioned those working in the judicial spaces; there’s law enforcement. But we also look to cultural heritage experts who are working in the field or specifically in Egypt to be able to broaden and deepen understanding of some of the concerns about illicit trafficking. So that ecosystem spans beyond government-to-government and that’s part of that collaborative partnership that I mentioned earlier.
Moderator: All right, we have another pre-submitted question from Sahar Zahran of Al Ahram in D.C., in Washington. She asks, “How has the United States been able to protect Egyptian antiquities during the previous period, or earlier?”
State Department Official One: So that’s a really great question. I mentioned earlier some of the ways that this MOU is part of a broader relationship and effort. Obviously, working with our law enforcement colleagues and things, there’s a question of repatriation of cultural objects and such, and I think the important point for the MOU is that in numerous cases, some of the collaborative efforts between law enforcement experts in the United States and Egyptian counterparts were facilitated and accelerated by the information-sharing that was brought about by the MOU, and that includes identification of certain items.
There are other ways that I think that we’ve also supported the MOU. I mentioned some of the public programming. So we’ve conducted cultural property protection workshops to promote the regional dialogue and collaboration that I mentioned previously, the training on protecting and conserving artifacts, and also bringing together Egyptian and American experts, including from different agencies in the U.S. Government to examine programs and policies and approaches that can help prevent looting and trafficking of artifacts.
More broadly, just speaking generally in terms of U.S. Government efforts, over the past four decades the U.S. Government has invested over $100 million to preserve Egypt’s archaeological sites and cultural objects, and I guess it also contributes to Egypt’s tourism sector. So this is conserving some of the most iconic and well-known sites in Egypt so that future generations can witness some of the splendor of Egypt’s rich heritage.
State Department Official Two: Only just to add briefly to that is our law enforcement colleagues who serve with us on the Cultural Antiquities Task Force, including the FBI art crime team as well as Homeland Security Investigations’ Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities program. If you look at some of their press releases from the past few years, you’ll see there are a lot – a couple of high-profile returns of Egyptian heritage, and that’s all to say that the MOU has created this heightened awareness in the previous period and moving forward about this issue of trafficking in Egyptian heritage. And these cases, which are now public – you can read them in their press releases – are really a good example of how seriously law enforcement in the United States is taking this issue, and especially in regards to Egyptian heritage, and they are taking many steps in order to recover and return these items back to Egypt.
Moderator: All right, we have another pre-submitted question. “How does the MOU intersect with the research and fieldwork of U.S. academic institutions and organizations?”
State Department Official One: Thank you for that question. This goes back to the – that broader partnership between the United States and Egypt. Obviously, there are different U.S. academic institutions and entities that work in Egypt. One of them is the American Research Center in Egypt, which has an over-70-year history, that has been doing fieldwork, restoration, conservation, preservation of Egyptian antiquities and cultural sites literally for decades.
There are others, too, in Upper Egypt through the University of Chicago, various other institutions, where there’s regular fieldwork done. And so these are folks that I consider to be part of that ecosystem that I mentioned earlier, experts that can help flag any sort of areas of potential threat, note differences that they’ve noted over the time between their fieldwork periods. And they really do help broaden and deepen awareness and the capacity of the Government of Egypt and also just cultural heritage sector experts in Egypt in terms of capacity-building and understanding approaches in cultural site management, in the museum sector, and various other facets, because there are different components that make up the entire cultural heritage sector. And so it’s one of the ways that I think that we build cooperation between the United States and Egypt in cultural heritage.
State Department Official Two: Just to add to that very fulsome description is that when we are entering into these MOUs or we are extending them, the Department takes into consideration whether the – among other factors, whether the MOU is in the general interest of the international community in the interchange of cultural property for scientific, cultural, and educational purposes. And we especially look at the relationship of our foreign government partners with American and other academics. Do they have access to sites? Is there collaborative research happening? And with Egypt, as was noted, there’s a very long history and a very vibrant community of academics – American, Egyptian, and other nationalities – who for decades have been working together on preservation and study of heritage in Egypt. So just to point out that this is a factor that we do take into consideration when evaluating the MOUs, and with Egypt it – there were a lot of positives there to see.
Moderator: Great. We have time for one last question coming from Benjamin Stuttson of The Art Newspaper.
Question: Yes, hi. Thank you. Thank you again for talking to us. This is all very interesting. I just had a somewhat basic question, which is you mentioned that this new MOU expands the historical scope of the previous one – I think you said from 300,000 B.C. up to 1750 for archaeological artifacts and 1517, I think, to 1914 for ethnographic artifacts. And I just wanted to ask what the significance of those dates are or sort of what the previous constraints on the scope of the 2016 MOU were that have now been expanded, kind of what the – yeah, what the significance of that larger scope of time is. Thank you.
State Department Official Two: Thank you for that question. Anytime we enter into an MOU or we amend or extend one, we take a fresh look at what the situation is in terms of looting and theft and trafficking. Over the course of the five-year lifespan of these MOUs, there are changes in circumstances where there might be new threats that arise, and so when taking this into consideration, it helps guide what the scope of the MOU should be based on the evidence that we have to evaluate.
So in this case, it was determined that there was a need to expand the contours, shall we say, of the MOU to make sure that material that is in jeopardy of pillage is being covered by the MOU, and that included that later-dating ethnological material where we have evidence of thefts and looting and trafficking.
The significance at least of the 1750, an eagle eye will see that this is a date that is similar with other MOUs in the region. Apart from having consistency, it’s also in U.S. law, the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, that archaeological material must be 250 years old or older. So we do have that legal constraint that we can’t have archaeological material that is younger than 250 years. So that is the significance at least for those – for those dates, for archaeological material.
Moderator: All right, thank you very much. That was all the time we have for today’s questions. I’d like to pass it back to our officials if they have any closing remarks.
State Department Official One: Thank you. I wanted to reiterate just how important the U.S. Government sees cultural heritage preservation and cultural property protection in Egypt as a key component of our bilateral relationship, and we look forward to continuing our work with the Government of Egypt over the next five years to build on the gains that we’ve seen from the 2016 agreement and now starting with the 2021 MOU moving forward. Thanks.
State Department Official Two: Thank you. Yeah, my concluding thoughts are just to reiterate in a way what was said – this being, the Egypt agreement being the first in the region. It really paved the way for similar MOUs that we have with Libya, Algeria, Jordan, and Morocco. And in the last five years we’ve seen just a groundswell of increased cooperation across North
Africa in general and the region as a whole in terms of law – not only law enforcement, but also the heritage managers, conservators, and others who are in this space to help protect and preserve heritage. And we’re very much looking forward to, as was said, kind of building on these gains, and I’m very grateful to the law enforcement colleagues who do serve on the Cultural Antiquities Task Force and who are out there helping us fulfill U.S. obligations under this MOU with Egypt.
Moderator: Great. I’d like to thank everyone for joining us today and thank the reporters on the line for your participation and your questions, and that concludes today’s call. Thank you.