In this 2006 photo, Zahi Hawass, then chief of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities and expedition leader, stands in the entrance of recently discovered 4,200-year-old tombs for dentists who served the nobility of the 5th dynasty, at the Saqarra pyramid complex south of Cairo, Egypt.
By Dan Murphy, Staff writer / February 14, 2011
A few days ago, in the shadow of the great Pyramids at Giza, the Egyptian monuments that draw millions of tourists to visit Egypt every year, the opinion among workers on the lower rungs of the economy was unanimous: The big man had to go.
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Dan Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.
No, they weren’t talking about Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian dictator chased from power last Friday. On the president, opinions were mixed. But the answer to the question “what would you most like to see changed about the regime” could be boiled down to two words: Zahi Hawass.
Mr. Hawass, who has run Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities since 2002, is the gatekeeper to Egyptology, a National Geographic Explorer in Residence (a lucrative perch) since 2001, whose rise in Egypt was at least partially sponsored by Suzanne Mubarak, the wife of the ousted leader. With his Indiana Jones-inspired hat and patter about the “mysteries of ancient Egypt,” he’s become something of a global star in the past decade.
And today, he was besieged by a few hundred employees of the council and unemployed archeology graduates, demanding better pay and jobs. Hawass, a larger-than-life figure resented by other Egyptologists for the tight grip he exercises over access to Egypt’s monuments (I’ve met a few foreign archeologists over the years who claimed he refused to issue permits because their theories did not square with his own) is a reminder of how much of theancien regime remains after Mubarak’s ouster.
To the men who rent camels to tourists and run unlicensed guide services for foreigners at the Giza plateau, he’s a hated figure and the reasons are simple. About eight years ago, Hawass had fences put up around the pyramids (and the older set of pyramids south along the Nile at Saqqara), which restricted their access to the sites, made it easier for the tourist police to extract bribes in exchange for allowing them to ply their trades, and lowered family incomes.
“That man would be happy to see a family starve if he could save a mummy,” says Ali Ibrahim, the third generation is his family to hawk camel rides at the pyramids to tourists. “We’ve lived here for generations, and he took money out of our pockets.”
The focus on Hawass by folks in Giza is likely to be repeated across the country. Mubarak may have been the president of the republic, but local governors and police chiefs are the real, direct symbols of government power across the nation. And they’re mostly still in their posts, at a time when people’s fear of expressing their local grievances is at its lowest ebb in at least 30 years.
In the case of the prickly Hawass, who unwisely accepted a position as minister (Egypt’s first ever minister of antiquities) in the last cabinet named by Mubarak a few weeks ago, a decent legacy will be left behind. He brought a previously moribund ministry into the 20th century and his energy and ambition were a net positive for the protection of Egypt’s great monuments. But it’s hard to see his position as a civil servant persisting much longer, particularly given his public association with Mrs. Mubarak.
An acquaintance of his who visited him today at his office while protesters outside bayed for his downfall described the usually supremely confident archeologist as “shattered” by recent events, and said most of his books and personal papers have already been moved out of the office. In the waning days of the Mubarak regime, he threw his weight behind the established order, and also appeared to have hid the extent of the damage done at the famed Egyptian museum – one of the great repositories of human heritage.
After a brief spate of looting two weeks ago, he said nothing of great value was taken. On Sunday, he admitted that the thieves had made off with 18 priceless artifacts, including two gold-encrusted wooden statues of Tutankhamun. “He had to have known that much sooner,” says the acquaintance. “I think he held the information back because he understood it would be catastrophic for the regime’s legitimacy.”
The functionaries of a dictatorship, perhaps of any order, take on the character of their leaders. There are hundreds of men in positions of power in Egypt right now who, like Hawass, are the targets of Egyptian popular anger.