CAIRO — “The Great Antiquity Smuggling Case” is how Egypt's media is referring to the latest incident of the large numbers of antiquities stolen and smuggled abroad.
Investigations indicate the involvement of several prominent Egyptian figures accused of illegal antiquity trafficking, including businessman Mohammad Baghdadi, who was arrested on July 2.
On June 27, Egypt's public prosecutor returned from Paris on a plane loaded with 114 artifacts Egyptian authorities recovered from France after more than two years of investigating the smuggling case.
Two days later, on June 29, prominent Egyptian businessman Hassan Rateb was arrested on charges of funding illegal antiquity excavations.
A few days earlier, on June 24, Egyptian security forces arrested Alaa Hassanein, a former member of the Egyptian parliament, on charges of illegally digging up artifacts and illegal possession of several antiquity pieces.
The coincidence of recovering the antiquities from Paris and the arrests of Rateb and Hassanein suggested the latter might have played a role in smuggling Egyptian artifacts to the French capital. More than 200 antiquity pieces were seized in Hassanein's warehouses.
But the prosecution’s official investigations have not yet announced a connection between Rateb and Hassanein, the smuggling of antiquities abroad and those that were officially recovered from Paris.
Commenting on the smuggling case, Alaa al-Kilani, a security expert specializing in combating artifact trafficking, told Al-Monitor, “This is a major case for the Egyptian security and antiquity sector. Dismantling the major smuggling networks would dry up the huge source of funding for this illegal trade and deter smaller smuggling groups.”
In a December 2020 report, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said that artifact trafficking was the third-largest illicit trade after drugs and weapons, with an estimated worth of $10 billion annually.
“I trust the Egyptian authorities’ keenness, under President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, to dismantle these networks — especially since several incidents at home and abroad showed that the huge revenues from this illegal trade are being used in money laundering and financing terrorists in many cases,” Kilani said.
In May 2019, some regional and international media outlets reported the Islamic State had made more than $100 million from selling antiquities from Syria and Iraq in several countries, using these funds to fund arms and recruits.
Meanwhile, there was talk about Rateb’s possible ties with the Muslim Brotherhood. According to businessman Ashraf al-Saad, a former friend of Rateb, the latter’s father was a leader and member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Office. The Muslim Brotherhood has been classified as a terrorist organization by Egyptian authorities since November 2013.
In a 2012 TV interview, when the Brotherhood was still in power, Rateb said he was friends with Mahdi Akef, the group’s former head.
According to Kilani, there are two challenges in the face of curbing antiquities trafficking and recovering artifacts smuggled abroad.
“First, it is difficult to monitor all sites where smugglers and dealers dig up artifacts, as these sites are spread throughout the country and some … remain unknown or undiscovered by the authorities. Second, there are several artifacts that remain stored in the [Egyptian] Ministry of Antiquities’ warehouses without being accurately registered — something that has been ongoing for several decades and makes it difficult to detect any theft from the warehouses,” Kilani explained.
He said in many cases Egyptian authorities were surprised to find Egyptian artifacts displaced in Europe or the United States. However, he said the Recovered Antiquities Department affiliated with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities had recently succeeded in properly registering and categorizing most of the stored artifacts and equipped all the discovered or potential archaeological sites with fences and surveillance cameras.
Smuggled Egyptian artifacts were sold in several prominent auctions, including those at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong and China over the last few years that saw the sale of five Egyptian antiquities. This is not to mention an auction at Christie's in 2019 where a statue of a Middle Kingdom wood funerary model of a boat was sold. In 2020, dozens of Egyptian artifacts were sold via video conference in an auction house in California.
Legal expert Mohammad Sadiq told Al-Monitor, “The Egyptian laws are still not sufficiently deterrent to limit illegal excavations, especially since the prison terms for this crime remain short. This traffic is extremely profitable to the extent that offenders could easily pay their bails or fines.”
He said the laws are more deterrent when it comes to smuggling antiquities abroad or stealing from stores and museums.
Under the Antiquities Protection Law No. 117 of 1983 and its 2020 amendments, illegal antiquity excavation is punishable by three to seven years in prison and a fine of no more than 1 million Egyptian pounds ($63,777). Meanwhile, the theft and smuggling of antiquities abroad is punishable with a lifetime in prison and fines exceeding 5 million Egyptian pounds ($318,885) in case of theft, and 10 million Egyptian pounds ($637,771) in case of smuggling abroad.
Sadiq said one of the main challenges is the absence of laws criminalizing the illegal antiquity trade and a law requesting countries to return stolen Egyptian artifacts when they enter their territories, except for the pieces that are discovered and registered in museums and stores, according to the 1970 UNESCO Convention.
He called on UNESCO to adopt an international law or convention obligating countries to return smuggled antiquities to their home countries, even if they were not registered on museum or warehouse lists.
In October 2019, the UNESCO Executive Council passed an Egyptian initiative to combat illicit artifact trade but it did not lead to any official and legally binding agreement at the international level.