It’s official: Dr Zahi Hawass, the Pharaoh of Egyptian archaeology, has quit. Already there’s been plenty of celebrating amongst those who think the Big Z is more of a liability than an asset to the preservation and exploration of Egyptian history, though I personally don’t think he’s quite ‘gone’ yet (more on that below). First, here’s why he resigned as Minister of Antiquities:
I resigned because of three main things:
1. During the earlier protests, Egyptian youths and the police protected the museums and monuments. Only the Egyptian Museum in Cairo was broken into and, thank God, all the important objects inside it were safe and only a few things were lost or broken. A report of exactly what is missing is still being compiled, however. Magazines were looted, but after initially appearing to get back to normal, the situation has recently become worse and there are many reports of thefts and illegal excavation.
2. Since the revolution, many people have continued to protest over other things, such as against me over jobs and salaries. Unfortunately, it is not possible to provide everything that everyone is asking for. In the Ministry of State for Antiquities, we need money to protect sites and to restore buildings and objects too. We need the money brought in by tourists who visit our sites and museums to fund these things and, at the moment, there are no tourists.
3. Crooks in the Ministry and at the University of Cairo have started to attack me personally. I cannot stand this!
Most importantly, however, is that there are not enough police to protect the sites. I hope that my resignation will put pressure on the government to do something about this and also encourage the international community to do so as well.
The Egyptian antiquities that are on tour at the moment are safe and kept so with contracts. They are completely safe and when the police are back in force, everything here will be protected properly again too.
My reading of this is more a case of Zahi “going on strike”, trying to bring attention to the desperate need for a security plan to ensure the safety of Egypt’s archaeological treasures – a publicity stunt, if you will (though whether for archaeology’s benefit, or Zahi, I can’t say). And already Hawass ‘loyalists’ are calling for his reinstatement in the belief he is the only man capable of protecting the country’s heritage.
But perhaps Hawass has good reasons to get out of Dodge. For one, as I mentioned back in January, he had extremely close ties to the Mubarek regime. Furthermore, he is now being severely criticised for downplaying only coming clean recently (according to respected Egyptologist Jaromir Malek, it’s “becoming clear that the amount of looting and damage is bigger than originally thought” – see also this analysis of the Cairo Museum debacle). And now it has emerged that Hawass may be facing a year in prison for some alleged shonky dealings in the tender process for the Cairo Museum gift shop contract.
Sadly, while the Zahi Circus rolls on, attracting worldwide media interest, Egypt’s precious antiquities remain under threat during this period of instability. Hopefully decisive action to protect the country’s past will be taken soon.
Previously on TDG: