Egypt archaeologist Zahi Hawass faces criticisms about his job, ties to Mubarak

For a moment, Zahi Hawass, the most famous archaeologist in the world, sounds a bit like Eva Peron.

“I did it all for Egypt,” he thunders.

In his office at the ministry for antiquities, the man in charge of this country’s 5,000-year legacy of cultural history, the man everyone calls Dr. Zahi, sits at an empty desk, with four telephones to one side. A cellphone is buzzing in his hand. Young women come and go, always in a hurry, responding to his urgent — one might say imperious — beck and call.

After two months of revolution and recrimination, which has seen him in and out of power, he is madly multitasking: Struggling to preserve ancient sites from theft and the encroachment of illegal construction, while working just as frantically to preserve his power base in a wildly shifting political landscape.

“I am not from the old regime,” Hawass says.

On March 3, with angry young archaeologists calling for his head, Hawass resigned from the top ministerial position given to him by now-deposed president Hosni Mubarak. That job not only made him powerful in Egypt, it also gave him sway over the careers of international archaeologists who work in this land of pyramids, temples, churches and mosques. But 27 days later, Hawass was put back in charge, because, he argues, no one else can do the job.

His position is far from secure. On Sunday, a criminal court convicted him for ignoring an earlier civil judgment brought against his ministry in a case involving concession contracts at the Egyptian Museum. It is likely only the first step in a protracted legal battle, and the sentence — a year in jail, loss of his post and a fine — hasn’t been enforced.

The ugly web of controversy in which he is embroiled, however, goes well beyond this latest contretemps, which Hawass describes as no more than a misunderstanding. The return of a man known for his autocratic style raises questions about the future of government reform in Egypt, and it presents a challenge to Western cultural leaders.

Hawass vigorously supported Mubarak during the early days of the mass protests that ended the president’s 30-year rule on Feb. 11 — which may come as something of a shock to those Westerners who know Hawass as a charming, spirited and charismatic popularizer of all things Egyptian. (He is the star of the His­tory Channel show “Chasing Mummies” and an explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society).

For now, the mummy chaser is speaking the rhetoric of revolution. The revolution was a good thing, Hawass says, and he drops fashionable phrases such as “the young people and the army together,” which have become unity mantras in a country in which old-guard army leaders are now in charge of assuring that a popular democracy movement will lead to genuine political transformation. He has created a complaints department at his ministry, and he is sponsoring an exhibition devoted to the revolution.

And he is distancing himself from Suzanne Mubarak, wife of the man now called simply Pharaoh, with whom local sources say he had a close personal friendship. The two were frequently seen together at blue-chip cultural events.

“I was not that close a friend,” Hawass says, adding that he has not been in touch with Suzanne Mubarak since the ruler’s family fled to the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

But it won’t be easy to scrub the record. Hawass’s connections to the powerful gave him the ability to cut through the red tape, negotiate the internecine byways of Egypt’s sclerotic bureacracy and get things done in a way that made him indispensable to outside institutions. He is the only person who can greenlight excavations by international teams that want to dig in Egypt. The exhibition of Egyptian material in foreign museums requires his approval, and those exhibitions can be a cash cow for blockbuster-hungry institutions.

But conflicting statements about the damage done at the renowned but dilapidated Egyptian Museum, which overlooks ground zero of the revolution, Tahrir Square, have severely undermined Hawass’s credibility. Initially downplaying the losses at the museum, Hawass later acknowledged that dozens of important pieces were missing. Local ­sources reported this week that as many as 1,000 important objects are unaccounted for at sites across Egypt.

Hawass has explained the confusing statements as the fog of war during the chaotic early days of the revolution, and his ministry is now issuing regular statements announcing the return of significant pieces. (Some of these strain the credulity of local archaeologists — for example, a report in the Al-Shorouk independent newspaper that four recently returned objects were discovered in an unattended handbag at a Cairo Metro station.)

Despite Hawass’s projection of calm and control, his critics say that looting continues apace at archaeological sites removed from Cairo, and there are almost daily media reports of antiquities smuggling, including a truckload crossing by ferry from Egypt to Jordan.

Abd El Halim Nur El-Din, former head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (the organization that was recently transformed into the ministry Hawass leads), says that Hawass’s management style makes it impossible for him to lead the ministry effectively.

“Zahi never listens to anyone, he never visits the archaeological sites, he only meets with the media and with stars,” he says of a man who has squired President Obama around the pyramids and supped with actor Omar Sharif. Nur El-Din also repeats allegations that have circulated widely here: that antiquities have gone missing after VIPs were given Hawass-led tours and that priceless objects have been discovered in the possession of Egypt’s former top leadership.

Hawass, in an interview, doesn’t respond to specific allegations, but says he is honest and has consistently supported both the protection and repatriation of Egyptian antiquities. He also says his critics are guilty of incompetence or malfeasance.

For now, Westerners involved with Egyptology are publicly supportive of Hawass or reticent to talk.

“Zahi has done more than any other individual to advance the protection and conservation of Egyptian antiquities,” says Terry Garcia, executive vice president of the National Geographic Society. Garcia also disputes a claim commonly accepted here: that Hawass stages discoveries for camera crews.

Other American groups with a Cairo presence prefer not to engage the issue. “Zahi is the only person who can talk about antiquities,” says an employee at the American Research Center in Egypt, before ending the call.

But the revolution, which has emboldened ordinary citizens to talk back to military figures and public officials, has also changed the way people relate to ministerial power. After the fall of Mu­barak, Hawass was the target of vociferous and angry protests by young archaeologists. And even with Hawass back in power, some ministry workers are now confronting him publicly. Allegations that Hawass has covered up thefts at archaeological sites and misused funds have been sent to Egypt’s newly empowered public prosecutor by two prominent archaeological officials.

Zaghlul Ibrahim Mohamed, an archaeological inspector who lives in an ex­urban neighborhood near Egypt’s Great Pyramid, has put his name to accusations that have circulated mainly as rumor until now. Mohamed alleges that Hawass often lays claim to discoveries made by other archaeologists and that he has used his influence to protect associates who are involved in the illegal antiquities trade.

Hawass will have none of it.

“They are using the revolution against me,” he says. He says that he is reforming his ministry, that he will not be the sort of minister “with guards and a big car” and that he will pursue the repatriation of Egyptian antiquities from foreign mu­seums with the same fervor he has always had. (Last month, Egypt came a step closer to reclaiming the Mask of Ka-Nefer-Nefer, held by the St. Louis Art Museum, when the U.S. attorney’s office in St. Louis moved to seize it.)

Although Hawass has charmed audiences and cultural leaders throughout the world, he is brusque and dismissive when it comes to his accusers. Asked about corruption allegations, Hawass pulls from his office drawer five folders that he says contain evidence discrediting his critics.

“I have a bad file against each one,” he says. “Five loud voices can ruin anyone. But they never ruined me. I am strong and honest.”

Hawass’s position appears secure only until Egypt holds parliamentary elections in September, when a new government will decide whether Hawass is, as he insists, the only one in Egypt capable of leading his ministry. His growing ranks of increasingly vocal critics dispute that, arguing that Dr. Zahi is not the only one who knows where the skeletons of Egypt are buried.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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