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Hawass’s changing story about the looting of Egypt

Following the looting of the Egyptian Museum [1], Zahi Hawass’s story about the events that occurred has changed many times. It will be interesting to see if he manages to keep his job for long in an Egypt no longer ruled by Mubarak.

The New Yorker [2]

February 18, 2011
Speaking with the Sphinx
Posted by Jenna Krajeski

The gates to the office of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, and of Zahi Hawass—the council’s Secretary General, then Minister of Antiquities Affairs, and now object of public scorn—were padlocked yesterday, in an effort to keep out protesters. Unemployed graduates of Egypt’s archaeology programs milled around on the sidewalk outside the building, in Cairo’s Zamalek district, demanding jobs and Hawass’s resignation. The calmness of their demonstration raised the question: Was the security measure really necessary, or was it an act of theater staged by Hawass? The gift store inside was still open.

Since the Egyptian Museum was looted on January 28th, Hawass’s official story has fluctuated. First he said that daft, amateur looters stole nothing of value—“They thought the shop was the museum, thank God!”—and all was well. Hawass was appointed as Minister of Antiquities Affairs in Mubarak’s interim government, and announced that protesters should go home; the Sphinx, he wrote on his Web site, agreed: “I looked carefully into his eyes, and imagined that I saw tears. The Sphinx is sad because of what has happened; Egypt will lose billions and billions of dollars, and for Egypt to recuperate this money it will take at least three years.” Then Mubarak resigned, and Hawass revealed that eight pieces remained missing from the museum, among them a statue of Akhenaten and two of Tutankhamun. Broken bits were being recovered from the area around the museum.

On Thursday, I spoke to Hawass, who claimed that they had now recovered the statue of Akhenaten outside of a downtown hotel. (By way of evidence, he shouted for an assistant who brought in a large color photo of the statue.) The looters, he maintained, were looking for gold, but, finding only gold-painted statues, threw them out, not realizing that they were valuable anyway; one piece, he said, was found in a trash can in Tahrir Square. He referred to people who wondered whether the looting might have been an inside job as “idiots.”

Hawass courts the press, sets himself up as an easy target—a bluster-fattened goose in the media crosshairs—and then vilifies reporters for writing negative things about him. (Ian Parker wrote a Profile of Hawass for The New Yorker.) And he tends toward statements that suggest egomania and élitism, not to mention a certain dismissiveness. (“Madame, try to use your head!” he told me, when I asked him whether any of the “two thousand little Zahi Hawasses,” as he called them, whom he had personally seen get an education, were among the protesters). He has been accused of prioritizing his own fame over the quality of excavations. The protests this week also included calls for an end to corruption in the antiquities offices. And Hawass is not very friendly. But he may have at least a partial defense here. Garry Shaw, an Egyptologist who worked with Hawass from 2008 to 2010, told me in an e-mail, “I don’t find it surprising that the initial statements later needed to be updated and clarified…. If an entire floor of the British Museum had been looted, I doubt they would be able to make an accurate statement as to the level of damage within 24 hours. The other option would have been to simply not say anything until facts were absolutely correct. Then people would be accusing Hawass of hiding information.” Shaw added, “If they truly had connections within the museum, I don’t see why they would risk coming through the roof.”

Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, also told me that looters on the museum’s second floor did seem “to be opportunists who were more intent on breaking things, grabbing things that looked to be gold,” without any apparent knowledge of what was really valuable. They did not seem, in her opinion, to be museum insiders.

Fair point, but it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Hawass issuing statements that derisively accuse the museum director of laziness while trumping up his own heroism—“I was at the museum while she was sleeping in Germany.” Neither does it seem likely that a public figure reacting to a theft at the British museum would rely so heavily on something that veers between a fatherly insistence and a cult of personality in order to badger the people into trusting them, as Hawass has. “You all know me, if anything happens I will report it right away,” he wrote on February 4th. “Again, and again, and again I tell you that the monuments of Egypt are safe.” And now, by his own account, statues of Tutankhamun are still missing.

Egyptian journalists I know used to say that Hawass was the second most powerful man in Egypt, after Mubarak. While it was never much of a compliment, such a comparison now might bode poorly for the embattled Minister. It’s hard to imagine a figure like Hawass, so bloated on his own notoriety, surviving a revolution. But both Shaw and Ikram think he’s done reasonably well by Egypt. According to Shaw, “His legacy will be a long line of new museums, better educated officials, stricter regulations meant to protect the sites, modernized tourist facilities, and, through his media work, many people who may not have been interested before, becoming enthused for Egypt’s archeology.” Or, as Hawass put it himself yesterday, after loudly claiming that he could make more money on a lecture circuit than sitting in Cairo, if he is forced to leave, “Egypt will lose and the world will lose.”

“I’m sorry to say this: the public loves me,” Hawass said. It went without saying that the protesters outside did not count.