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Tut Tut
Incompetence on a Pharaonic Scale

Is Mr. Bean visiting Cairo? Staff at the Egyptian Museum have admitted that someone knocked off the beard of King Tut’s famous burial mask, then hastily glued it back on—causing permanent damage.

Incidents like this give insight into how things work in a troubled country. The Egyptian Museum is one of the great treasures of the world, and a major cash cow for Egypt. But it’s evident even to the casual visitor that it is poorly run. Exhibits that any museum in the world would kill for are poorly displayed, labeled, and protected. Something like this—something out of an episode of a Mr. Bean movie rather than how one of the world’s great museum treats one of its most priceless and popular exhihibits—shows how those superficial problems point to deeper dysfunction. It’s almost like ripping the Mona Lisa and then scotch-taping it together.

If this is the way things work in one of the country’s best financed and most visible institutions, where the light of national and international publicity shines brightly, what happens in the dark? In the ministries and bureaus where political appointees, time-serving quacks, and corrupt officials go about their daily business with little or no fear that they will be held to account?

The poor performance of the Egyptian state when it comes to delivering basic services, formulating and carrying out policy aimed at promoting economic development, and so on is a fundamental cause of the unrest in the country. This lack of capacity pervades state-owned and state-managed institutions such as universities and state-owned businesses as well. Whether the country is run by generals, liberal politicians, or Islamist activists, the ineffectiveness of the state (and the social and cultural norms that make it seem OK for so many people to take salaries without really doing their jobs) is something that will have to change before Egypt can really become independent and get past the need for foreign subsidies.

But no development economist, no UN bureaucrat, no team of McKinsey consultants, no IMF agreement or World Bank initiative is going to fix this. This fix has to come from within—from within Egyptian culture and from within the hearts of millions of Egyptians. A moral revolution isn’t the only thing Egypt needs, but without this change from within nothing else will really work.

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  • Kevin

    Unfortunately no individual can change it, and if they try they will probably be ground down by the corruption around them. The Argentine prosecutor who “committed suicide” shows what happens when one individual tries to behave ethically.

  • Corlyss

    The West which relies on those museum artifacts to tell the history of civilization has a lot more to worry about in their continued location in Egypt. When Islamists take over Egypt, they will destroy the collections most valued by the West. Like the Buddhas in Afghanistan, once the iconoclasts destroy them, and the libraries of ancient texts, they are gone forever. Too bad something meaningful can’t be done to protect the collections, since we seem to be content with ineffective measures to obliterate the threat.

  • f1b0nacc1

    All the more reason that the Brits should drop the idea of returning the Elgin Marbles to the Greeks.
    Lets be honest with ourselves…some of these states are simply not fit to sit at the adults table.

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