The State Department Cultural Heritage Center has clarified the situation on the Egyptian MOU as follows:
Potential Memorandum of Understanding between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Egypt’s Ministry of State for Antiquities
The Department of State’s Cultural Heritage Center has become aware that confusion exists concerning a potential MOU between U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Egypt’s Ministry of State for Antiquities. Such an agreement would differ from the type of MOU made under Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention for import restrictions on certain categories of cultural materials. The Department understands that the MOU presently under discussion by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement concerns information exchange and not import restrictions. If the Government of the Arab Republic of Egypt requests an agreement pursuant to Article 9 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the Department of State would announce receipt of such a request in the Federal Register. This procedure is the only means currently available to a country wishing U.S. import restrictions on its cultural property.
Given this clarification, a recap of how this issue arose is in order.
Last May, then Egyptian Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass stated on his blog,
[A Coalition of US archaeologists] reported that the US Government is willing to impose emergency restrictions on Egyptian antiquities....The coalition will be drafting a formal agreement between the US and Egyptian governments...."
Last June, the Cultural Policy Research Institute made FOIA requests on the matter, that have not been answered satisfactorily.
Last September, it was reported that the State Department [not US Customs] had given ICOM a sole source contract to prepare a "red list of Egyptian antiquities at risk." See http://culturalpropertyobserver.blogspot.com/2011/09/state-department-commissions-egyptian.html
Just this week, an Egytian newspaper that is viewed as the unofficial voice of the Egyptian military government reported,
New strategy to prevent illegal trade in Egyptian antiquities
Nevine El-Aref, Sunday 23 Oct 2011
American-Egyptian memorandum of understanding to track down antiquities smugglers in the United States to be signed soon
In an attempt to tighten security measures on antiquities trafficking, Egypt is to sign a memorandum of understanding with the United States enabling the Customs and National Security Department in the USA to track and catch antiquities smugglers in the country. They will also be able to take all legal procedures to return illegally smuggled antiquities to Egypt.
Mustafa Amin, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Ahram Online that according to the memorandum, training courses would be provided for Egyptian archaeologists responsible for archaeological units in ports and airports in order to discover any smuggling attempts across Egyptian borders.
The United States will also offer Egypt a financial grant to implement a special security strategy at all its archaeological sites, museums and borders. State-of-the-art security equipment such as electronic gates, burglar alarms connected to TV circuits, and cameras will also be provided.
Under the circumstances, while the State Department's clarification is welcome, it should be followed up with more transparency about the issue.