The burning of the Egyptian Scientific Institute Library is a sad event.  First and foremost we should recognize that many civilians rushed into the dangerous situation to save the irreplaceable books and manuscripts. These men and women should be the pride of Egypt. The library itself, with books dating back to the Napoleonic expedition, represents a critical chapter in Egypt’s modern history.

Conflagrations have a long history in Egypt. Often they mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. Like rapids in a river they rudely interrupt the placid flow of history to mark a boundary. As always, the causes are murky, the accounts conflicted, and there maybe more than one hand involved in the Arson

It would take too long to enumerate all such conflagrations.  The most famous, of course, is the burning of the Library of Alexandria. It is an event that marked the end of the era of pagan learning, and in effect made Egypt firmly Christian and detached it from the Mediterranean-European world for the next 15 centuries.

Other, more recent fires, include the Cairo fire of January 1952, which in hindsight marked the end of Egypt’s attempt to be a liberal constitutional monarchy, and inaugurated an era of military-backed strongmen in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. The burning of the Cairo Opera House in 1971 ended the era of Cosmopolitan Cairo that started a century earlier with the opening of the Suez canal. The construction of the Opera House was to mark the occasion (and perform Aida). From 1971 onward, the elegant Cairo of black-and-white photographs was rapidly fading.  The death of many men and women of letters in the subsequent few years did not help. Suspicions still center on the fire as an intentional arson in a real estate scheme. If so, it is then the opening volley in the Sadat-Mubarak era of corruption and cronyism.

Forty years hence, we have this fire. As with all the others, the causes and arsonists may never be known. If it is the demonstrators, then they are the youth we have never educated or cared for. If it is the Army or the Police, then it is the corrupt state that mismanaged such vital institutions. But no matter, a new era is dawning. What will it be, we do not yet know. It is in our power though to mold it.

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