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Regime Change: Will Hawass Step Down? UPDATED

Egyptian Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass with King Tut
Photo: Stephanie Sakoutis

Kate Taylor of the NY Times reported online yesterday that Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities minister, is “considering resigning.” Taylor suggests that his reason has to do with recent additional looting (including break-ins Monday at two warehouses near the pyramids of Giza), which led him to conclude that “his department was unable to protect Egypt’s historic sites and artifacts.”

But as with the many previous contradictions between Hawass’ original unequivocal assertions and what later proved to be a very different reality, there may be other more pressing reasons why Hawass may be thinking of leaving. Notwithstanding his assertions that he was in the streets with the protesters, he was closely associated with ousted President Hosni Mubarak and had argued (scroll to bottom) that “we need Mubarak to stay and make the transition.” There have been many calls for Hawass to step down.

Another reason why he might relinquish his post may be inferred from oblique comments by Hawass in this Feb. 22 post on his website, in which he stated:

this ordeal, there have been people who have been completely dishonest,
and have tried, through their statements, to make the situation worse,
in some cases by accusing me (in vague terms) of various inappropriate
or even illegal behaviors. Of course, as even these people themselves
know, none of these accusations has any basis in reality….I have
written to Egypt’s attorney general, asking him to look into some of
the false accusations that have been made against me.

Some sense of the allegations that he may be up against are included in a short article published on Feb. 22 by the Egyptian newspaper El Ahram. Nevine El-Aref reported:

Zahi Hawass, minister of antiquities, has sent a report to the
Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud
after allegations were published
against him in Al-Wafd newspaper. He has been accused of smuggling
Egypt’s antiquities on behalf of former president Hosni Mubarak’s
family. The newspaper quoted the accusations of archaeologist Nour Abdel

The archaeologist making these charges may himself be a dubious source, as El Ahram seems to suggest. A rough translation of what appear to be his rambling comments about Hawass can be found here.

In a post on the website of Science magazine, Andrew Lawler reports on other accusations Hawass may be dealing with.

One thing seems certain: If Hawass wants to recover the objects missing from the Egyptian Museum, he’s doing an inexplicably inadequate job of assisting in this effort. Back on Feb. 13, I wrote (scroll to bottom):

The Egyptian Museum’s most urgent priority, aside from assuring the
security of what remains within, must be to post and widely circulate
high-quality images of what’s missing, along with information about
where sightings of this stolen property should be reported.

My call for dissemination of information has now been joined by Margaret Maitland, whose Eloquent Peasant blog has been the go-to source for updates on the Egyptian antiquities situation. On Saturday, Maitland wrote:

It is now two weeks since it was announced that a number of objects were
missing from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, and a month has passed since
the actual break in when the objects taken. However, even though an
official list of missing items was released, because of a lack of
photos, inventory numbers, or detailed information, we still don’t
actually know precisely what’s missing. It is possible that this
information could be valuable in stopping the objects from leaving the
country or being sold….

As of yet, the statue of Nefertiti that was stolen has still not been
identified and we are not sure which Amarna princess head is missing. I
have been checking a number of publications for information about these
pieces and have still found nothing.

Riddled with self-contradictions, deliberately or incompetently misleading reports, and dangerous lack of transparency, what and I had previously described as Hawass’ “flawed crisis response” is spiraling towards a failed crisis response. The danger for antiquities, as for the rest of the country, is that a power vacuum could make a precarious situation even worse.

: The Talking Pyramids blog has more details on the looting  near Giza and tellingly notes that Hawass had previously rejected offers of international assistance to protect archaeological sites during the Egyptian crisis, saying that no help was needed.

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