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.