Al-Ahram Weekly | Egypt | Pride cometh before a fall: "Pride cometh before a fall
It was officially confirmed on Sunday, 6 March, that Zahi Hawass has stepped down as minister of antiquities in Egypt, Jill Kamil writes
Zahi Hawass, the international face of Egypt's archaeology for some 10 years, has admitted that he was no longer able to protect the country's antiquities because of the absence of police protection, and because he believes he is the victim of a campaign against him by senior officials at his ministry. What he doesn't admit is that members of his own staff have accused him of dictatorial polices concerning findings, unfairness in taking credit for the excavations of others, punishing any whose opinions do not square with his own, of hampering the aspirations of qualified graduates, of nepotism and even, in the words of ex-director of the Egyptian Museum Wafaa El-Saddik, of overseeing a system of corruption.
Days before he resigned as president in February 2011, Hosni Mubarak elevated Hawass from his position as secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to head a new Ministry of State for Antiquities Affairs (MSAA) -- which separates it from the Ministry of Culture -- something he has long been pressing for. As a member of the old guard, however, his name indelibly linked with those of Suzanne Mubarak and ex-minister of culture Farouk Hosni, so he could not expect to remain a cog in the wheel of a discredited state apparatus no matter how often or how vociferously he defended himself on his website and in public interviews.
In NatGeo Newswatch posted on 22 February, he vowed to stay on as Egypt's antiquities chief, 'so that I can continue to do everything in my power to protect Egypt's cultural heritage.' That he has failed to do. Despite repeated assurances that he has attended to the upgrading of security systems at archaeological sites all over the country, built 30 new storehouses, and tabled new legislation increasing the penalties of those found guilty of illegal dealings in antiquities, he has now been forced to admit failure.
'The antiquities guards and security forces at sites are unarmed and this makes them easy targets for armed looters,' declared Hawass, who added, 'the Egyptian police force does not have the capacity to protect every single site, monument and museum in Egypt'. Indeed, hundreds of archaeological sites all over Egypt remain inadequately protected. Objects have frequently turned up at international auction houses which have been withdrawn from sale, confiscated, and steps taken to return them to Egypt. There is a certain irony, however, in the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the retrieval of stolen goods by Hawass personally, while little mention is made of steps taken for the protection of the monuments from which they were looted.
Antiquities thieves, incidentally, are not all galabeya -clad looters as the stereotype has it, or traders like those who were caught red-handed in Minya carrying stolen artefacts for which a dealer was going to pay them LE5 million ( The Egyptian Gazette, 21 May 2003). Unfortunately the antiquities trade embraces all levels from the lowest to the highest. In 2004 Tark El-Siwaissi, chairman of the National Democratic Party's office in the Giza governorate was remanded in custody pending investigation. He was accused of having amassed a fortune estimated at LE33 million, from smuggling Pharaonic antiquities to Europe and America for the previous two years. He had allegedly made hefty bribes to certain high ranking individuals to ensure his appointment in an area which gave him easy access to antiquities officials who would help him conduct his illicit smuggling. Six officials were implicated in the scandal ( Al-Ahram Weekly, 22-28 May 2003).
As secretary-general of the SCA, Hawass was both admired and criticised, and he responded to both with aplomb. Self-possession is the hallmark of his character. When accused of being pro-American he said: 'I give nothing for nothing.' When foreign missions accused him of creating so much bureaucratic red-tape that he hindered their activities he responded, 'requesting the mapping and photographing of each concession, the publication of all discoveries made within five years after first clearance of the finds, new concessions put on hold in order to better focus attention on existing endangered sites like the Delta, these rules are all reasonable, and in the interests of Egypt'. When accused of being no Egyptologist he waxed lyrical on his discoveries: the workmen's cemetery at Giza, the Valley of the Golden Mummies, the tomb of the Graeco-Roman governor of Bahriya, a 5,000-year-old tomb at Saqqara, new evidence of granite quarries in Aswan, and the ruins of a gigantic temple at Akhmim.
Anyone who has excavated in Egypt well knows that no discoveries could be announced without authorisation by Zahi Hawass, and woe betide anyone who violated the rules. Famously, in 2003, he banned British archaeologist Joann Fletcher from working in Egypt, denouncing her as 'nuts' when she announced, on a Discovery Channel documentary that she thought a previously-discovered mummy in the Valley of the Kings might be that of Nefertiti. Furious that he was not been given the opportunity to make the announcement himself, Hawass called it 'inconclusive, premature', and banned her from Egypt 'because she had broken the rules'. It has long been known that if one didn't want to incur his wrath, it was wise not to pre-empt him. He is known to have a terrible temper.
Preferential treatment has never won him kudos. I am reminded of the episode regarding Tutankhamun's mummy in the Valley of the Kings. In January 2005, he declared that it would be removed from the tomb for forensic examination in Cairo. Accused by high-ranking and respected compatriots on the Permanent Committee of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (including Abdel-Halim Nureddin and Gaballah Gaballah) of unscientific behaviour, and putting the mummy at risk, he changed his mind and decided that the examination would take place in situ. But in granting exclusive rights to a documentary team of the National Geographic, while excluding Egyptian photographers and journalists, he infuriated not a few.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly back in August 2005 (Issue 757) Hawass mentioned that he hoped, during his tenure, to be able to raise the living standards of Egyptian archaeologists, providing them with medical insurance, a syndicate, and allowing them to make a more active lead in archaeological work in their own land. He fell short of his promise, which is why there were demonstrations outside the SCA building on three occasions last month. He was targeted by concerned students and archaeologists demanding his resignation. His promise of 900 archaeology internships to a representative group did not do much to soothe their anger.
And angry too are archaeologists who claim that in not announcing the truth about the break-in in Cairo Museum last month, and declaring the objects safe, he allowed the thieves to make away with treasures which are probably already in some private collection abroad. And, in failing to tell the truth about the broken objects being restored he is until today keeping bad news at bay.
'He doesn't miss out on an excellent photo opportunity like the discovery of the statue of Akhenaten as an offering bearer by a young protester near the southern wall of the museum in Tahrir Square, but he opts out of telling the truth about the 11 missing shwepte figures,' said one disgruntled archaeologist who is pleased to hear that Hawass will not be part of the first post-revolutionary government.
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