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