The Angry Librarians of Alexandria
By Jess HillMarch 14, 2012
Internationally feted, the director of the revived ancient Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt faces corruption claims, MPs calling for his resignation, and a staff in revolt. Commandoes helped him escape the angry librarians — and of the rest, Ismail Serageldin is unfazed.
ON January 8, about 400 librarians marched up to the executive floor of the Library of Alexandria. They had one demand: that its director, Ismail Serageldin, resign immediately.
The Harvard-educated polymath locked his office door and refused to come out.
So they waited. Officials were called in to reason with them – a member of parliament, an official from Alexandria’s Interior Ministry. But the librarians refused to budge.
Nine hours passed. The Egyptian Navy sent a taskforce of elite troops to negotiate an exit for Serageldin. Still the librarians refused, demanding he come out and face them in person. “We were prepared to sleep outside his office,” recalls Yasmine Gazzaline, a manuscripts restorer at the library.
A few hours later, navy commandoes emerged from Serageldin’s office and told the librarians the director had left the building.
With the navy’s help, Ismail Serageldin had escaped out of his fifth-floor office window.
The librarians were devastated. “When he was gone, I cried so much!” says Gazzaline. “I had thought, ‘We are going to solve the situation!’ Instead, he left us like we were some dogs barking in his backyard.”
The Library of Alexandria — now bearing its ancient name, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina — is one of the most famous libraries in the world. It was rebuilt in 2002, on roughly the same site as the ancient library, which burned down “accidentally” 1,600 years ago, when Julius Caesar set fire to his ships in Alexandria’s harbour. Generously funded by foreign kings and presidents, the library’s revival was a pet project of the former first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, who was praised the world over for bringing the eighth wonder of the ancient world back to life.
Praised, that is, until the revolution revealed her as one of Egypt’s most nefarious figures. In March last year, Egypt’s Illicit Gains Authority made an unsavoury discovery: $145 million, allegedly intended for the library, was sitting in a bank account with Mrs Mubarak’s name on it. Serageldin, who was appointed by Mrs Mubarak to run the new library in 2002, claims he knew nothing about this.
But that hardly matters to the employees trying to getting rid of him. They say Serageldin turned the library into a “façade of enlightenment” whose reputation was used to “buttress a ruthlessly despotic regime” and “dupe the world… into believing that Egypt, under Mubarak, was not so bad after all”. They accuse him of serious financial mismanagement, of creating an atmosphere of surveillance and suspicion, of promoting people based on their compliance and firing people without warning.
“This was like a feudal castle, connected to the Mubaraks, and headed not by the Sheriff of Nottingham but by another sheriff, Ismail Serageldin,” says Ahmad Reffat, a senior specialist in the manuscripts centre.
Serageldin says most of the protesters are “junior employees… with their own agendas”. But one of the leading protesters, Widan Hussein, is a senior translator whose career at the library predates Serageldin’s time by four years. She says they tried numerous times to negotiate with Serageldin on reforms the protesters believe would improve the library. “The last 10 years have had more to do with propaganda than actual production,” says Hussein. “If you compare the amount of funds and time dedicated to this library, the achievement is nothing to speak of.”
When Hussein presented the reform suggestions to Serageldin, he was “very nice” about it. “He said he understood our demands, and suggested we establish some committees to formally submit them.”
Months after they were submitted, however, Hussein says that besides a few minor changes, Serageldin finally refused to act on all of them. “Committee after committee – all ended with nothing.”
On October 26 last year, after several months of negotiations, 1,700 employees (from a total of 2,300) signed a petition calling on the director to resign. Serageldin says he answered 18 “legitimate complaints”: “These people are all satisfied — they went back to work, and the library is working fine.”
However, since October, a smaller number of employees —sometimes up to 200, by their count — have protested every day for an hour outside the library. Bewildered tourists sidle past them as they chant energetically outside the entrance, calling for Serageldin’s removal. On more than one occasion tourists have found the library closed.
Away from the library itself, foreign members on its board of trustees say the protesters’ allegations against Serageldin are “baseless”, and that he is an undeserving target of Egypt’s post-revolution purge. Sohair Wastawy, who was chief librarian at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina from 2004-2010, recently toldAmerican Libraries magazine, “It has become an attitude: We can remove the country’s president; we can remove anybody else.”
That’s certainly a tempting frame. But look closely — there’s more to this story than meets the eye.
YOUSSEF ZEIDAN IS SO FURIOUS he can barely speak.
“I’m very angry,” he fumes. “Egypt cannot build this library again! It was a very special moment to revive the library. And now it’s broken down because someone refuses to go away.”
Zeidan is no junior employee. The 54-year-old Egyptian author and scholar has written more than 50 books, one of which won him the Arabic version of the Booker Prize. Until recently, he headed the library’s Manuscript Centre, a department he established in 1994. “I collected 92,000 manuscripts from the libraries of the world, to help the scholars,” he says.
But on February 2, Serageldin fired him. “On February 1, I wrote an essay in Al-Masry Al-Youm, called ‘The Last Call to Save the Bibliotheca Alexandrina’. I wrote the article because it’s my responsibility to the people around the world who helped us build this library.” Zeidan takes a deep breath, and pauses. “Serageldin is destroying the library.”
When I asked Serageldin if he had ever fired anyone without warning, his reply was an adamant “no.” “He is a liar,” Zeidan says, seething. “When did he warn me? The day after my article was published, he made this decree: ‘By the rule of law, I, Ismail Serageldin, fire Youssef Zeidan, starting from today.” Ahram Online reported that Serageldin stated that the article was the reason for Zeidan being fired.
Why were you so intent on writing this article, I ask? The library is recognised as one of the world’s best. What has Serageldin done that you think is so destructive?
“For nine years I worked with this man, and I liked him. But after the revolution, everything became public. Some of his assistants gave the authorities many documents. I discovered he was doing very bad things — hidden things,” he says. Zeidan says that recent investigations have revealed that Serageldin hired three employees who worked solely from Serageldin’s private residence. “This was only one file! There are more than 40 files against him.”
Serageldin says calls for his dismissal are all coming from mostly junior employees with their own agendas, I say. “No, no!” exclaims Zeidan. “It’s also the parliament and the government – they made a decree to fire him!”
Here, the plot thickens.
LAST MONTH, ON FEBRUARY 27, a parliament committee demanded that Ismail Serageldin be fired from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and that its board of trustees be dismissed.
Egypt’s independent daily, Al-Masry Al-Youm, reported that the head of this committee, Mohammed al-Sawy, also demanded an investigation into Serageldin regarding “all cases of financial and administrative corruption”.
Sawy says this demand was backed by the Minister for Higher Education, Hussein Mostafa Moussa Khaled, who was acting on behalf of Egypt’s Prime Minister. The minister is also a member of the library’s board of trustees.
He says that instead of the standard bureaucratic process, it took them just 45 minutes to agree to call for Serageldin’s dismissal. “It was very strange,” says Sawy.
But why are they suddenly so eager to dismiss the library director? Couldn’t he be asked to step aside until the investigations conclude? Is this request being made in the interests of the library, or is there something else at play?
ISMAIL SERAGELDIN HAS A FORMIDABLE CV. The former vice-president of the World Bank has a PhD from Harvard and 29 honorary degrees from universities around the world, including the University of Melbourne and the University of Technology, Sydney.
“The protesters that apparently are the source of your story are a small group of people who have their agendas,” he says, when we speak late one evening.
But it’s not just a small group of protesters, I reply – a parliamentary committee has also called for your dismissal. “Mohammad al-Sawy is misinformed,” says Serageldin. “He has been told that there’s a huge amount of corruption charges in the library, and that Suzanne Mubarak is still the head of the library. Who’s circulating those lies? The same people you are talking to. He has not conducted an investigation. A member of his committee raised a question, they had a debate about it, and that was it – no investigation.”
At this point in the investigation, I was unaware that the call for Serageldin’s dismissal had also come from one of the library’s trustees, the Higher Education Minister. Serageldin did not mention it.
So are the corruption charges still standing, I ask? No, he says: all but three corruption charges have “just been dropped”, and the three that remain are merely “misdemeanours”. When The Global Mail called Mohammad al-Sawy to verify this, he said he had no knowledge of this. The Global Mail could not verify it in time for publishing.
Serageldin says his staff members have no reason to protest. “Working conditions at the library are far better than any other place in Egypt. We have a minimum wage of 1,100 pounds per month ($170), plus health insurance.”
But your employees aren’t contesting their wages, I reply; their most pressing concern is the quality of the library’s academic output.
Serageldin explodes at this. “What?! Please! Please! This is such total nonsense,” he shouts. “The library is one of the most distinguished institutions in the world. We collaborate with the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian... For heaven’s sake, who are these people to discuss the academic output of the library? They know nothing about the academic output.
“Most of the employees are junior people who are still learning their job,” Serageldin repeats. “Do you believe that the president of the Academy of Sciences of the United States knows more about academic output, or an employee who has been in the library for six years?”
THE EX-PRESIDENT OF THE ACADEMY OF SCIENCES is Bruce Alberts. He’s now editor-in-chief of Science magazine, and one of 26, mostly foreign, members on the library’s board of trustees (which used to be chaired by Suzanne Mubarak).
“Removing Serageldin from this position would be a tragic mistake for the future of the new Egypt,” says Alberts, describing Serageldin as “an energetic and idealistic leader”.
“Through the library and its work in creating vast, new, open communication resources to serve the Muslim world, Serageldin was a great advocate for the new Egypt and free expression long before there was a new Egypt,” he continues.
Despite the fact that one of the board’s members, the Minister for Higher Education, has called for Serageldin to be fired, Alberts has not heard anything about it. “I’ve not been in my office,” he says.
I ask him if the board of trustees knows about the corruption charges Serageldin has been facing. “I did know that there were corruption charges – Ismail said they were not valid, and they were being investigated by someone... I don’t remember who.”
The director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is answerable to its board of trustees. The last time they met was in April last year, when they chose to renew Serageldin’s contract for another five years.
But since that meeting, says Alberts, the only information he has received about the corruption charges against Serageldin has come from Seragledin himself.
I ask Alberts one last question. Did the board ever discuss the possibility of Serageldin stepping aside until the investigation concluded? “I don’t know how that works in Egypt,” Alberts says.
WINTER’S ENDING IN ALEXANDRIA, but there is still a chill blowing in from the Mediterranean. The six librarians who’ve come to talk to me are dressed in woollen cardigans and scarves — not exactly the standard garb of hot-blooded rebels.
Ahmed Reffat, the manuscripts specialist, says the library’s problems can be summed up by a simple architectural quirk. The original design for the library included a corridor connecting the academic and administrative departments, and a bridge that poured down into the streets, “into society”. But now there’s a locked door between the departments, and the bridge is a dead end.
He says protesters have had their salaries deducted. “I was docked more than 700EGP ($110) – that’s five days’ pay,” says Reffat.
Despite this, they are determined to continue, and not to “repeat the same mistakes as the revolution”.
“We are not allowing ourselves to be deceived again,” Reffat insists. “This is why we have united in our demand for Serageldin to leave this institution. He has lost his credibility.”
In the past year, the West has seen many of its “friends” in the Arab world revealed as enemies of their own people, from the London-educated “reformer” Seif Gaddafi, to the human rights advocate Suzanne Mubarak, who publicly advocated for women’s rights while banning women’s groups that refused to submit to her control. (Not to mention the much-feted Assads of Syria.)
Serageldin is a darling of the West – that much is clear. But closer to home his record is being seriously challenged. Establishing the truth will require much sharper scrutiny of each claim and counterclaim. Certainly we should have learned by now that a liberal is defined by actions, not just words.
“Old thinking is unsuited for new times. We need new strategies to ensure Egypt’s place in this new world.” That’s a quote from Ismail Serageldin. Time will tell if he has followed his own advice.
With additional reporting by David Hollier.