January 9, 2012
Zahi Hawass – the person in charge of Egyptian archaeology, insists that he will stay in his job, despite the change of regime in the country.
Egypt’s man from the past who insists he has a future
Jack Shenker in Cairo
Thursday 19 May 2011 15.29 BST
Zahi Hawass, appointed by Hosni Mubarak to oversee Egypt’s cultural riches, is the great survivor of the revolution
No one interviews Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s self-styled Indiana Jones of the east – he interviews himself, fist pounding on desk and spittle flying forth into the ether.
“Do I look like a minister to you? Of course not!” thunders the minister for antiquities, a man appointed by Hosni Mubarak to oversee his nation’s cultural riches and, improbably, the great survivor of this year’s dramatic revolution.
“I am not part of the old regime – I love Egypt, I love archaeology and I will never be a politician,” Hawass continues. “I’m a damned archaeologist through and through.”
Zahi’s strength of feeling is understandable. The 63-year-old headed Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) from 2002 onwards. Like so many other Mubarak-era public figures he is struggling to carve out a role in post-uprising Egypt.
He is desperate to hammer home his apolitical virtues but after accepting a cabinet job as the regime was beginning to crumble and then taking to the airwaves in early February to declare ”we need President Mubarak” the task was always going to be tricky.
Yet the larger-than-life adventurer – who promotes Egypt’s pharaonic heritage to the world through his History Channel TV shows and role as pyramid tour guide to everyone from Barack Obama to Beyonce – is still at the apex of Egyptian politics, shrugging off a torrent of scandals and preparing to take a ”revolution roadshow” around the globe.
“This is one of the most significant episodes in Egypt’s history,” says Hawass, who resigned his cabinet position three weeks after Mubarak’s downfall, only to be reappointed a month later. “For the past 5,000 years we have been ruled by pharaohs, and on January 25 [the day the revolution erupted] we finally broke that chain.”
Hawass has his defenders who argue that his charismatic leadership and support for Egyptian-led digs has helped reverse decades of colonial exploitation.
With grand new museums planned on the Giza Plateau and in Fustat, the neighbourhood of Cairo that served as Egypt’s first capital under the Arabs, Hawass is not expected to fade from public view any time soon.
Nor is his much-publicised campaign to repatriate Egyptian artefacts losing steam. The day he met the Guardian, Hawass had just secured the return of a fifth dynasty stele from a museum in Basle. The Nefertiti bust, residing in Berlin, is next on a long target list that includes the British Museum’s Rosetta stone.
Hawass may be keen to separate archaeology from politics but others feel differently. In the days following Mubarak’s ousting Hawass’s offices were swamped by archaeology graduates demanding to know why unemployment among them was so high and wages so low, given tourism revenue of over £7bn last year.
Soon afterwards controversy erupted over the launch of a ”Zahi Hawass clothing line” that is now retailing in Harrods; several artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb were allegedly used to advertise the product, and Hawass’s assurances that all profits would go to charity did little to calm the storm.
Then last month, in what many thought would be a coup de grace, Hawass was sentenced to a year’s hard labour in prison owing to irregularities in the awarding of a retail contract in the Egyptian Museum – a charge he denies. So far the punishment has not been implemented.
“When you are successful in life attacks are inevitable,” says Zahi, pulling open a desk drawer to reveal a stack of colour-coded foolscap folders stuffed to the brim with papers.
“My critics are trying to use the revolution against me, but in here I have plenty of information on them too. We’ll see who comes out on top.”
Hawass’s complete control over the awarding of concessions and research commissions in Egypt means that few Egyptologists, either local or foreign, are willing to speak out.
Behind the scenes, though, a different story is told. “A few months ago I would never have thought he could survive this wave of scandals, his connections with the previous regime, all the claims of corruption that have dogged him for the past nine years,” said an Egyptian archaeologist who preferred to remain anonymous.
“And yet the interim government has reinstated him and the whole Egyptology community was shocked. Zahi thinks there is no one else who can do his job. Our former president said exactly the same thing. It’s the sort of claim we’ve come to expect from a mini-Mubarak like Hawass.”
From Hawass’s perspective his position is unshakeable. “Things change, but I am the only one who understands this country’s history, who can truly see the past,” he sighs.
“We have always needed a strongman; without one you have chaos. Look at what’s happening at the moment. Times are troubled but I’m optimistic that the unpleasantness will end and success is around the corner.” Whether he is referring to Egypt or himself is not clear.
- Louvre returns ancient artefacts to Egypt : December 26, 2009
- Asserting Egypt’s sovereignty over its cultural heritage : February 18, 2010
- Zahi Hawass at the centre of controversy over potential bribes paid by National Geographic : October 30, 2013
- Controversial keeper of Egypt’s antiquities looses his job : February 2, 2012
- Hawass’s changing story about the looting of Egypt : October 25, 2011
- Egyptian antiquities conference will aid other restitution campaigns : January 5, 2010
- What can be learnt from the Egyptian approach to restitution : October 18, 2008
- US to return smuggled coffin to Egypt : March 5, 2010