The Real Tragedy Behind the Fire of Institut d’Egypte

When I heard that the Institut d’Egypte was on fire on Saturday, December 17, I rushed down to see the tragedy for myself. It was a horrifying scene: flames of fire rose up from the corners of the collapsing building, the smell of smoke, hovered, heavy and stifling, over the whole place, demonstrators were shouting slogans against the regime that has not in fact fallen, and against the police and the military council. My phone rang nonstop. Friends kept calling to find out what could be done to save whatever was left to be saved.

The next day I went back. This time, I entered the building under a hail of stones thrown at each other by demonstrators and the army. Friends and I rushed to take as many books out as we could before the building collapsed on our heads.And yet, despite all this, and just like the day before, I found myself unconcerned, with the tragedy-- or at least not concerned enough. I soon realized why. I had begun my day by going with friends, to the morgue in the Zeinhom district, in solidarity with the families of Sheikh Emad Effat and six other martyrs killed the night before by shots that most suspected came from the army.  There, we heard testimonies from the families of the martyrs and weeping that broke our hearts. From there, we went to the Al-Azhar mosque to pray over the body of Sheikh Effat, and walked in a solemn funeral procession to the family’s section of the graveyard in Imam al-Shafei.

The funeral turned into a demonstration as well: people continuously shouted slogans against the military council and its shameful deeds.

When I arrived in Tahrir Square that evening and saw the fire, there was only one thing I could think: today we have faced a loss much more precious than the books of the Institut d’Egypte. I specialize in the 19th century history of Egypt, I know all too well the importance of books being burned before my eyes. But the lost lives of all of the martyrs in Tahrir Square, day after day, are more valuable than those burning books—however rare and expensive they might be.

In the following days, my indifference turned into outrage at the lackluster coverage of the official media, which kept repeating the line that a bunch of "thugs" had set the fire, going so far as to claim that  there was a plot out there to  burn down all of Egypt.

I was not present when the fire broke out; I cannot determine who set it. But I did see all those young people the military and its media called "thugs," as they surged into that inferno to save what books could be saved and hand them over to the military police. If this is the behavior of thugs, then all I can say to those thugs is: "Thank you for your heroism. We stand ashamed in the face of your courage."

All the sudden interest in the Institute d’Egypte leaves me even angrier. We are ignoring the real problem that led to its burning. The real problem is not that the building was without fire extinguishers, or that the army failed to secure it. The real tragedy is that no one — not even scholars — knew of its existence in the first place. Nor did those who lament the lost manuscripts ever bother to read them.

The real value of a book cannot be measured by its rarity or high cost, but rather by the information it contains. The significance of a library cannot be measured by the number or scarcity of its books, but rather by those who frequent the library and read its books. A library frequented by no one, and which people notice only when it is set ablaze, has no real value.

Worse still is the way we lament the burnt Institute and blame the beautiful young people of Egypt who risked their lives to save its books, even as we close our eyes to women dragged down the street, and youth shot in the eye by the military, and the lives being lost every single day.

Khaled Fahmy is a historian and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo

(Editorial Note: A slightly different version of the English was published previously in Al Masry al Youm-English, January 1, 2012)