Egypt caves in to popular pressure to display controversial French statue in museum

After years of tension and popular pressure, Egypt has decided to move the statue of French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was behind digging the Suez Canal, from the Port Said governorate to exhibit it at the headquarters of the Suez Canal International Museum in Ismailia governorate.

al-monitor An undated image of the statue of Lesseps in Port Said, Egypt. Photo by Mohamed Kamal/CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Oct 21, 2020

CAIRO — The Suez Canal Authority announced Oct. 11 the transfer of the statue of French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man behind the idea of ​​digging the canal connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, from Port Said governorate to the headquarters of the Suez Canal International Museum in Ismailia governorate. The statue was housed in a marine shipyard at the Suez Canal Authority for more than 60 years.

The statue was installed on Nov. 17, 1899, at the northern entrance to the canal on the 30th anniversary of the canal’s opening to international navigation. The canal was inaugurated in 1869, but Egyptians removed the statue in 1956 following the tripartite aggression against Egypt; it has been in the warehouse of the authority’s shipyard ever since.

The transfer decision comes following several attempts on the part of the authorities over the past years to re-erect the statue at the northern entrance to the canal in order to boost tourism. However, such attempts have been rejected by Egyptians who believe that the statue is a symbol of colonialism that embodies a period of injustice for Egyptians.

Monica Hanna, dean of the College of Archaeology and Cultural Heritage at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport, told Al-Monitor, “It is true that the government had an urgent desire over the past years to re-erect the statue at the northern entrance to the canal with the aim of boosting tourism, especially considering that the statue is cultural heritage and a testament to an important period in Egyptian history. This desire strongly emerged after the January revolution in 2011 and the clear economic and tourist deterioration that ensued.”

The Egyptian economy witnessed a significant decline in 2011 as a result of the decline in tourism and investment revenues in the wake of the demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak on Jan. 25, 2011.

On June 23, a few months after the January events, then-Gov. of Port Said Ahmed Abdullah called for the return of the statue to its base during a symposium titled “Port Said’s Revelation of Hope Between Reality and Hope.” The governor said that Port Said needs to find attractions to stimulate tourism, and that visitors would want to see the statue of de Lesseps.

The governor said de Lesseps has committed some mistakes, but he has offered advantages that history will not forget, and these advantages are exemplified by the gains that the Suez Canal has achieved for Egypt so far.

On Aug. 7 of the same year, Omaima Wali, director general of the Egyptian General Authority for Tourism Promotion in Port Said, said, “The authority has strongly called for the return of the Lesseps statue to boost tourism in Port Said, as tourism programs can be set up on the pier named after de Lesseps with appropriate sound and lighting equipment. Also, documentary films about the history of Egypt and the nationalization of the canal could be screened to stimulate tourism in the governorate. We are in dire need for such programs because tourism is one of the components of economic growth in Port Said.”

On Feb. 20, 2014, Port Said Gov. Samah Qandil stated that procedures for the return of the statue to its base had been initiated in coordination with the armed forces, and two other statues are to be placed to immortalize President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Egyptian farmers.

He noted that the statue’s return to its base would be within the framework of a full-fledged panorama that narrates the history of the Suez Canal construction with the aim of strengthening the bonds of Egyptian-French relations and stimulating tourism.

Hanna said that despite the government’s constant efforts to re-erect the statue, it eventually caved in to popular pressure, especially from the people of Port Said governorate, and decided to settle for exhibiting it in the Suez Canal Museum.

She added, “In the end, the value of heritage is determined by the people, and we have often heard about influential historical figures who have been removed in response to the public. This is a recognized fact. Only people own that right, and Egyptians see that de Lesseps killed their children and used them in forced labor throughout years of digging.”

The book “History of Egypt from the Ottoman Conquest to Before the Present Time,” by Selim Hassan and Omar al-Iskandari, reveals that no less than 25,000 unpaid workers dug the canal, and were replaced on a quarterly basis and suffered difficult conditions. Many of them succumbed to hunger, thirst, heat, cold, fatigue and misery, and whenever any of them would perish, they would be replaced by other farmers.

On July 5, 2020, the Egyptian Writers Union issued a statement denouncing the return of de Lesseps statue. The statement read, “All Egyptian intellectuals and writers consider this a crime against our heroic Egyptian people and a challenge to the will of our brave people.”

On July 6, member of parliament Mustafa Bakri demanded during his speech at the plenary session of parliament the removal of the statue from Port Said governorate, saying, “He was a colonist and such a statue should not be placed in the valiant Port Said governorate.”

On March 6, 2019, Haitham Wajih Tawila, a human rights activist, announced that he had filed a lawsuit against the prime minister, the ministers of antiquities and culture and the governor of Port Said in their capacity to hold off on returning de Lesseps statue to its base and suggested moving it to a museum instead.

Moamen Othman, head of the museum sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, told Al-Monitor the ministry has nothing to do with the decision to transfer the statue, and said that the state was behind the decision.

This was confirmed by Ahmed al-Sawy, a professor of Egyptian history at Cairo University, who said in an Oct. 11 press statement that a presidential decision was behind the step.

“Our role was limited to technical supervision during the transfer process, as the statue is cultural heritage that cannot be squandered,” Othman said.

Moamen concluded by saying, “Our role is to protect and preserve heritage, and this has been evidenced by the ministry’s decision to register the statue under the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish monuments, and its decision to fund its restoration in an attempt to preserve, protect and exhibit it in a museum that embodies the history of the Suez Canal.”

On March 3, 2019, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly decided to register de Lesseps statue under the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish antiquities following the approval of the Permanent Committee of Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities and the Board of Directors of the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

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