Bibliotheca shelving scholarship for profit, say critics
-Taken from the Guardian
-Alexandria - August 2009
It was meant to be the library that recaptured the ancient glories of Alexandria, providing a new home for the world's knowledge almost 2,000 years after its predecessor was burnt to the ground.
But whereas the old Egyptian library offered a rich diet of philosophy and history to the greatest thinkers of its age including Euclid, Archimedes, and Herophilus, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina is coming in for harsh criticism for serving up a very different kind of fare.
A row has erupted over the decision to build a food court at the heart of Egypt's self-proclaimed "window on the world", with campaigners accusing the Bibliotheca's trustees of selling out the library's venerable legacy for short-term profit.
Among the charges levelled at the $220m Bibliotheca, which opened to much fanfare seven years ago, is the accusation that secret plans are being hatched to allow the fast-food chain McDonald's to open up a branch inside the complex, and that the library is putting brash consumerism ahead of serious scholarship.
Library authorities have denied the claims, insisting that the food area, scheduled to open next month, is needed by the 800,000 visitors who visit each year and who, at present, have few options for buying a tea or snack.
Six companies have been granted licences to open stores in the food area and the library insists that McDonald's is not among them.
"The idea is to provide new facilities which will let visitors spend more time in the library," said Sharif Riad, the director of public relations. "The food court is located in an area of the complex which is unused, and is sensitively designed, no logos or brand names will be visible."
But in a country that has seen the presence of multinational corporations proliferate at a dizzying speed in recent years (there are already more than 50 McDonald's outlets in Egypt) the library's assurances have done little to calm the storm. Many commentators are linking the latest invasion of brand names into Egypt's most sacred cultural institution with the broader ties that exist between rich capitalists and political leaders and which have grown sharply under Hosni Mubarak; these have led to a number of corruption scandals.
"I don't know why everything promising, everything good, in this country must be destroyed by the government and the officials with their greed and cooperation with the businessmen," said Zeinobia, a prominent Egyptian blogger.
Ismail Alexandrani, who started a 5,000-strong Facebook group vowing "cultural resistance" to the food court, wrote: "This is about money, money, money."
The controversy is the latest in several disputes to hit the Bibliotheca since its inauguration. The projects' building costs were criticised in some quarters as a misuse of resources in a country that suffers high levels of poverty and a serious illiteracy problem.
The library has also struggled to build up its collection, with some experts estimating that it will take up to 80 years to fill the shelves to capacity because of insufficient funding.
But the establishment's defenders maintain that the 21st century Bibliotheca eventually will live up to its illustrious ancestor.
"We must remember that the ancient library took hundreds of years to prove itself," said Mohsen Zahran, the library's senior adviser. "We can't expect Bibliotheca Alexandrina to acquire the same importance right away."