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At Risk: Egypt's Heritage -- and Our Own

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There is a crisis unfolding in Egypt: some of the world's most precious archaeological sites and artifacts are being senselessly looted. Like most Americans, I wish Egyptians the best as they navigate what is proving to be a rocky transition to democracy. Throughout the transitional process in Egypt, ongoing turmoil has been tragic for the preservation of the country's priceless cultural heritage. Robbing Egypt's past also harms its economic future by damaging the prospects of its critical tourism sector.

The Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim, recently visited Washington D.C. to plead with the United States government and other organizations to support his country in the battle against cultural racketeering.

Cultural racketeering, the systematic theft of art and antiquities by organized crime, has increased in Egypt significantly since 2011. Research by The Antiquities Coalition found increases between 500 to 1000 percent at key archaeological sites since then.

This breakdown in security has been accompanied by a sharp downturn in tourism across Egypt. Minister Ibrahim claims major declines in revenue at archaeological sites and museums nearing 90 percent, leaving his Ministry with limited resources at precisely the time at which they are most required.

Brave Egyptian archaeologists like Monica Hanna, leader of Egypt's Heritage Task Force, and others, have organized local efforts to protect sites and museums. In the case of the Malawi Museum, Hanna single-handedly fought off armed looters attacking the facility. Heroes like Hanna need outside help because of the scope of the problem, the lack of available domestic resources, and the lack of international cooperation.

In spite of the desecration of museums, storage facilities, archeological digs, and religious sites, international assistance has been slow in coming. The international support for countries in crisis as they struggle to protect their antiquities is, to be blunt, inadequate. The 1970 UNESCO Convention on Trafficking in Antiquities, which governs the international rules for trade in antiquities, desperately needs to be updated. It contains no provisions for helping countries in crisis; nations like Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, and more have suffered as a result. In the meantime, irreplaceable treasures have been lost forever.

UNESCO, the United Nations agency responsible for defending culture, has been unable (or unwilling) to take the lead in this fight in spite of the fact that limited funding and modest technical training could make a tangible difference. Equally important, UNESCO and its parent organization, The United Nations, can do more to raise global awareness about the terrible toll, both economic and cultural, that results from the trade of illegally obtained antiquities. It is too late to sound the alarm after museums are empty and illegal excavations have plundered historical artifacts.

There is no "silver bullet" that can solve Egypt's antiquities problem. While the Egyptian government must take responsibility for better protecting its archaeological treasures, U.S. organizations with a stake in Egypt's heritage must also increase their support. The International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities - an initiative of the Antiquities Coalition -- has signed an agreement with the Egyptian government to provide training, education, and business opportunities to help arm Egyptians in this fight. While essential groups like the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Archaeological Institute of America act as key members of the Coalition, there is room for many more to join them.

All institutions and individuals who benefit from their connections in Egypt should strive to become part of this effort. These potential partners include universities that oversee excavations, museums with Egyptian collections, auction houses that sell artifacts, and companies that market books and videos featuring antiquities. Even modest donations can make a huge difference. Coming together to share data about the global looting patterns, one of the top five global crimes according to the FBI, could help as well.

A favorable U.S. response to Minister Ibrahim's request for help is only a first step, but an important one.

The State Department has said that it is open to imposing import restrictions on Egyptian antiquities if Egypt's application passes through the necessary legal process. The State Department should also consider using its political platform to convene a Cultural Racketeering Summit of all parties with an interest in combatting this scourge.

Culture is a critical -- but seldom used -- tool in the State Department's diplomatic tool kit. Tremendous good will can be built by helping countries to save their heritage -- as seen in the recent movie, "Monuments Men." And, terrorist networks and organized crime involvement in the distribution and sale of these priceless objects create security and foreign policy issues. The United States should consider allocating new or current financial assistance to Egypt for the purpose of defending its imperiled cultural heritage.

The looting not only stands as a problem for Egypt, but as a challenge to everyone who cares about the history of mankind. Egypt continues to exist as the cradle of human civilization -- a place where we as a people created a complex society rich in culture and abundant with art. In a real sense, Egypt's heritage is all of our own. The stories of the pyramids, the Child King Tut, and Cleopatra's ill-fated love are intrinsic parts of the collective human narrative. Helping Egypt to preserve its antiquities is not charity -- it is a respectful nod to mankind's shared history.

Deborah Lehr chairs the Capitol Archaeological Institute at the George Washington University and is founder of Antiquities Coalition, parent of the International Coalition to Protect Egyptian Antiquities. Lehr is also on the Board of the Archaeological Institute of America.