In Egypt, Director Of Famed Library Of Alexandria Under FirePublished on 6 November 2011 @ 1:46 pm
By William New, Intellectual Property Watch
The director of the legendary Library of Alexandria, lauded in Europe in recent weeks, has come under attack from the majority of his library staff and others demanding his departure over questions of unprofessional employee practices, alleged retaliation against workers for speaking freely, and for his affiliation with the outcast Mubarak regime.
According to internet and Facebook reports and videos, peaceful protests and sit-ins demanding that Director Ismail Serageldin leave immediately have been taking place for over a week in Alexandria. So far, demonstrations involving an estimated 1,700 workers (out of a total of some 2,300, according to sources) appear to be relatively peaceful, attended by workers in business suits, among others.
But reports say the library board of trustees met with Serageldin late this week and decided to back him, which has led to a possible escalation in activities. An invitation extended to workers to return to their posts from their “vacation” with forgiveness appeared to be rejected by the workers group, which now is showing even greater resolve to remove him from the library, sources said.
The workers, who declare their strong avowal to the library as a global institution of higher values and excellence, say that Serageldin says all the right things publicly, but that internally he has overseen unfair treatment and a crackdown on free speech.
“We – the Staff of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina – have resorted to open protests out of our firm belief in the message of the Library in raising the values of justice, equality and freedom of expression,” said a staff statement circulated online. “Driven with our firm belief in the BA as a center of excellence, we have trodden every legitimate channel including the BA Director and the Board of Trustees to realize our rightful demands that ensure the prosperity and progress of our esteemed institution.”
The workers argue that the library’s personnel affairs regulations “are devoid of any professional standards for employee hiring, contracting, promotions or contract renewal.” Meanwhile, they said, “they are abundant with disciplinary measures and even contract non-renewal subject to the mere whims of their managers.”
“Such terms have resulted in turn into the creation of a corrupt management network that is based not on talents or outstanding performance, but rather on personal interests,” they said. “This has crippled the potentials of the Library and limited its contributions to Enlightenment and restricted its activities to hosting conferences and cheap cultural propaganda.”
An attempt by Intellectual Property Watch to obtain a comment from the library or the director received no reply.
In mid-October, Serageldin was the keynote speaker at a World Intellectual Property Organization conference in Geneva entitled, Enabling Creativity in the Digital Environment: Copyright Documentation and Infrastructure. He spoke in favour of access to knowledge, among other things (IPW, WIPO, 19 October 2011).
But saying the right things may not mesh with his actions back home. A key charge of the demonstrators, shown in signs on the library plaza, is that Serageldin should “practice what he preaches.” They also used slogans similar to those used during the protests against Mubarak, like “go away.” A group Facebook page said, “We are all Omar Hazek” after a library worker who was fired, they say, for writing an article criticising Serageldin’s policy in the library. This echoes the calls during the Mubarak protests of “We are all Khaled Said.”
The library was long said to have direct ties to the Mubarak leadership, as a favourite project of his wife. It has in recent years been hailed as a bright spot in the region and globally (IPW, Access to Knowledge, 16 November 2009).
Serageldin ignited anger in Alexandria when he was interviewed, video here, and apparently told an audience in the Netherlands that the demonstrators are associated with Muslim extremists, which the demonstrators vigorously call a lie. A written interview is here [pdf, in Dutch].
After the director’s speech in the Netherlands, a sharp opinion piece entitled, “The Fake Librarian,” was published in a Dutch newspaper charging that Serageldin lied in his remarks to the Dutch audience.
The unofficial English translation of the opinion piece is here.
Referring to his speech at a renowned Dutch institute on 30 October (where he apparently was likened to French philosopher Voltaire), the opinion piece said [in an unofficial translation]: “The librarian proved very eloquent. He argued the once cosmopolitan Alexandria could and should be an example for both Arabs and Europeans. He talked about numbing fears, the duty of intellectuals to present a mirror to their own society, and the necessary commitment to truth. But he lied in his Nexus speech about the demonstrations taking place in front of his own library at this very moment.”
“While he was pleasing the Dutch elite with his comforting thoughts, young Alexandrians and many of his own employees were protesting against the corruption that is present within the director’s board of the library,” it said. “For over a week these people have been gathering and organizing sit-ins against corruption, the old system, against the people who destroyed Egypt out of egocentricity and greed, and indeed against Dr. Serageldin himself.”
The charges were said to include a demand for an investigation into the squandering of public funds and the theft of artefacts from the library.
“The librarian, however, had a very different view on these unfolding events,” the piece said. “He told his Dutch audience that the protestors are radical Muslims who would like to see the closure of the library due to immoral practices like dance shows and open debates.”
“Now where and when did we hear these kinds of things before? Exactly, in the Egypt led by dictator Mubarak,” it said. “Whenever something is not to the liking of the men in power, the Islamists are put forward.”
“The revolution in Egypt is not over yet,” the piece concluded. “In fact, it has hardly begun.”
The library staff statement signalled the depth of commitment to their cause. “We have been patient during the past decade as we were the property of a corrupt cruel regime rather than being the property of the Egyptian people and all mankind, this bitter fact was the result of our directors’ malicious efforts to polish the dirty face of the former Egyptian dictators.”
“After the great Egyptian uprising, we are determined on building a modern free Egypt that is a true asset to her people and the whole human race.”
A Twitter search on Serageldin, here, reveals many comments about him.
Serageldin’s own Twitter page is here.
Also, a Twitter hash #BibAlexLeaks has been developed for activities related to the director and library.
[Note: Intellectual Property Watch has no stake in any issue raised in this story and takes no position on the issues under debate.]
William New may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.